Leadership Spotlight

Is Happiness Overrated?

A stock image of two men talking in an office environment.

Should I try to be happier? Do happier people make better leaders? Do happier leaders make for healthier and happier organizations? Such questions sometimes plague our minds and invade our thoughts. The past few years have proven mentally and emotionally challenging. Because of those challenges, people want to find ways to be happier and lead more fulfilling lives.

We click to the self-help section of online book retailers or scroll through countless social media posts to read inspiring and motivational quotes. We watch endless TED Talks on how to be happier. We take online assessments, searching for that unachievable end state of total bliss, only to find that we often fall short.

As humans, we all seek a basic sense of belonging, which contributes to our happiness. Are we looking in the right places? Or, are we just comparing ourselves with unrealistic visions of what happiness really means? When searching for this ever-elusive happiness, we should be focusing on something else — optimism.

A lot of recent work has been done in emotional intelligence, wellness, mindfulness, and positive psychology that may have led us to think that we should strive for happiness as the goal. However, it is not a permanent end state. “Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.”1 It is complex, can be fleeting, and is based on the present. 

Better yet, research in the science of emotion informs us that each emotion we experience serves a purpose. While we can manage and regulate some emotions to motivate, inspire, and drive toward action, it is dangerous to gloss past the uncomfortable ones in search of the ever-elusive goal of happiness. In other words, we should not try to “fake it until we make it.”

Of course, happiness is important. It is essential to our well-being. But, it is not the cure for all the world’s ills. If we do not allow ourselves to truly feel negative emotions, like grief, anger, or profound sadness, how do we know what happiness feels like? What do we use for comparison when we have tried to suppress those painful and often negative emotions that are a vital part of our being?

Happiness can be fleeting or faked. Optimism, described as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something,” is a different animal.2 Psychologists say there are three parts to optimism: sense of opportunity, positive mood, and resilience.3 Instead of seeking happiness, we need to focus on optimism as it relates to resiliency. Research has shown that optimistic people achieve their goals, live longer lives, have healthier relationships, and experience more moments of happiness.

Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov.


1 Kendra Cherry, “What Is Happiness?” Verywell Mind, last updated February 9, 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-happiness-4869755.
2 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “optimism,” accessed December 16, 2021, http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/11125.
3 For instance, see Martyn Newman as quoted in Stephanie Overby, “Emotional Intelligence: 3 Ways to Build Optimism During Disruption,” The Enterprisers Project, June 15, 2020, https://enterprisersproject.com/article/2020/6/emotional-intelligence-build-optimism.

“... optimistic people achieve their goals, live longer lives, have healthier relationships, and experience more moments of happiness.”