A Surprising Path to Happiness

I grew up a country kid with love for sports. 

So I am as surprised as anyone that I now love musicals. My favorite is Les Miserables, and I am listening to the soundtrack as I type. 

The story has many nuances, but at the core, it portrays the power of grace and kindness. When the bishop extends grace and kindness to Jean Valjean, it changes the course of his life. Following that interaction, Jean Valjean lives a life of service to others. 

It’s a theatrical representation of a principle Tom Rath highlights in his book, Are You Fully Charged?

“The pursuit of meaning — not happiness — is what makes life worthwhile. Despite Thomas Jefferson including it in the Declaration of Independence, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a shortsighted aim. Putting your own well-being before well-doing pulls you in the wrong direction. 

People who spend life seeking happiness are unlikely to find it. Much like chasing fame or wealth, seeking happiness alone is misguided and can lead to poor decisions. 

Clearly, happiness is a positive condition. Being around people who have higher levels of well-being is more enjoyable than being around people who don’t. It is the constant pursuit of your own happiness that leads you astray. 

Pursuing happiness for loved ones or for your community is a worthwhile goal. But trying to create happiness for yourself can have the opposite effect, according to recent studies. Scientists are still uncovering the reasons why the pursuit of happiness backfires. Part of the explanation lies in its self-focused nature. 

Research suggests that the more value you place on your own happiness, the more likely you are to feel lonely on a daily basis.”

Most leaders feel overwhelmed with all the tasks on their agenda. This sense of overwhelm tempts leaders to become self-consumed and self-focused and arrange their lives around getting others to serve them. 

This leads to a spiral of unhappiness. 

A leader worth following does it differently.

They learn from Tom Rath, the bishop, and Jean Valjean. They seek to make others’ lives better in the midst of the overwhelm, knowing that it will lead to their fulfillment and happiness.

I think I’ll cue up Come From Away when Les Miserables ends. (Come From Away chronicles the real-life experiences of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, and the almost 7000 airline passengers who were forced to land there when US air space was closed on September 11, 2001.)

It’s another story of grace and kindness. 

I think I’m sensing a trend here. 


Brian Rutherford

Brian Rutherford is Director of Content and Product Strategy for Leadercast. Brian has been telling stories professionally for twenty-five years. Stories that inspire people to see themselves and the world differently. Stories that challenge people to take meaningful action in the world.

More Articles

Peace in the Chaos

And while you should keep an eye on your financial assets, money is not your most important asset. Your mind is.

As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Read More »

Feeling Like a Fraud

As our work and personal lives are increasingly intertwined, a little vulnerability and a willingness to be real goes a LONG WAY—especially if you’re a leader.

Read More »