Is the pursuit of happiness a good goal for retirement?

Mature man making forced smile while standing against grey background

Image: gstockstudio/

Well-known Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay says, No! Happiness is a somewhat shallow goal and mostly unworkable.

He explains it this way: ‘Unremitting happiness is not the mark of a life well lived—a good life—any more than unremitting sadness is. Wholeness, he says, is the thing to aim for.’

You’ll find this in his book The Good Life, as he sums up his chapter ‘How the pursuit of happiness can make you miserable’. Wholeness is central to living the good life.

The problem of happiness as a goal

Happiness as a goal for life could be a disaster because ‘no one is likely to be satisfied with a life lived in the single-minded pursuit of one emotion—happiness or any other’.

‘Polyanna is not our best role model.’

That doesn’t mean we should try to avoid happiness, but merely not make it central. Enjoy it when it comes, ‘but the feeling will evaporate as soon as you pursue it’.

‘If you’re clear about how you mean to live your life, the day-to-day . . . question of whether you happen to be feeling happy or sad hardly seems to matter; those emotions are no more than interesting signals about your response to the passing parade.’

Besides, there’s research that suggests that those who are not happy are less gullible, more sceptical and make better decisions. These are advantages.

Wholeness a better way

‘Wholeness is not for the faint-hearted,’ writes Mackay. It ‘means what it says: brace yourself for the whole spectrum, the works, the whole enchilada’ of feelings and experiences.

And it stands in contrast to the thought that it’s possible or desirable to ‘float through life in a bubble of joy’ and ‘seeing the world through a happy haze’.

‘The experience of wholeness . . . equips us to enter into the distress, the disappointment, the suffering of others, to bask with those who want us to share their fleeting moments of triumph, and to be reliably present for those grappling with life’s uncertainty.’

The pursuit of happiness is a selfish approach to life. Life is bigger than me.

‘The crucial test of a life well lived is the quality of our responses to the needs of others. Everything else is peripheral and mostly trivial.’ Mackay goes a step further: ‘It is in loving [others] we are made whole. And yet love’s work is the hardest work of all.’

It’s in relationships that we find richness.

I’ve allowed Mackay to speak extensively in this post because he’s making an important point. Too often we’re tempted to live life at the shallow end of the pool because it seems attractive—and safe.

A full life is complicated and lived best with depth and purpose. Lived with wholeness—at whatever stage we’re at. Or whatever stage we’re preparing for.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Connecting, Emotional Health

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