Over the past decade, the emergence of the ‘happiness movement’, applied positive psychology and the pursuit of research in the field of subjective well-being has continually gained momentum.

However recently, there appears to be more and more warnings on the potential downside of the pursuit of happiness… and it concerns me.

Rather than provide an exhaustive list and reference what seems to be an increasing number of academics, authors, and practitioners who are writing about the downside of the pursuit of happiness I just wanted to make the point that the more you read what they’re writing and seemingly objecting to, you will discover that they are in fact (in the main) all saying the same thing, and it is basically this… unless you are clear on what living a happy, flourishing and prosperous life means for you personally, how can you possibly pursue or ever achieve it.

The idea of living a ‘good life’, promoted as far back as the philosophical writings of Aristotle cannot be discussed or understood by isolating singular elements of what is an increasingly growing amount of research and evidence about what impacts our overall sense of well-being and the notion of living a good life. For example, happiness isn’t just about money, or health, or possessions, or relationships, or goals, or curiosity, or mindfulness, or vision, or values, or character or thoughts, or feelings or habits or whatever else.

And yet, that is sadly what tends to happen, and it’s causing more confusion that clarity.

Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success posted an article yesterday on Business Insider with the headline “The Pursuit of Happiness May Be A Recipe For Disaster”. What sounds like a warning against the pursuit of happiness, is actually saying, get clear on what will help you live a more happy, flourishing and prosperous life.

In Grant’s article, when he writes “… if you truly want to experience joy or meaning, you need to shift your attention away from joy or meaning, and toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as byproducts.”

But do you see the paradox here?

While on the one hand Grant suggests we ought not pursue joy, meaning (or happiness). But at the same time, how can we shift our attention toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as byproducts when we may not be clear about what projects and relationships will potentially bring joy, meaning and happiness.

There’s countless studies (for example in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The Myths of Happiness and Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap) that show most of us think we know what will bring us happiness, but that the evidence is we often pursue the wrong type of things that do not result in us improving our overall sense of well-being.

Grant also references work on ‘Flow’ studies by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and that while ‘in flow’ (you might like to think of it like when you’re ‘in the zone’ of an activity), many people aren’t experiencing happiness. But this again is a shallow way of looking at what happiness is. It is not just about a feeling, it’s experiencing and welcoming the experience of the many human emotions we are blessed with.

While ‘being happy’ sounds relatively easy to understand, the problem is the more research that is conducted and reported on, the more complex the whole idea of pursuing a happy, flourishing and prosperous work and personal life seems to get.

Here’s where Intention helps.

When you get clear on what your intention is for each life role, and then take intentional action to help live up to the intentions you will be pursuing activities that by that definition alone, will help you feel better about who you are and what you’re doing. In other words, going all the way back to what Aristotle taught about living a ‘good life’ – it’s about building our personal character, our self-trust, trust in others and others trusting in us.

So don’t get confused by headlines about happiness and the relationship of singular approaches or elements that are linked to happiness. Practical Intentional Altruism isn’t about doing amazing things on a large philanthropic scale for each and every person you have work and personal relationships with. It can be small every-day practical examples like really listening to a customer or colleague, or following up with a genuine intention on something that you probably don’t have to do, but that you want to do, because you want to make a difference and make a statement that this relationship matters to you.

Focus on your intention for each life role, your intention to in some way positively impact the lives of the people in the many relationships you have, and you will be well on your way to living a happy, flourishing and prosperous work and personal life.