The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

We are shoveling mulch like our lives depend upon it.

My three kids are loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and I’m hauling and dumping and spreading and sweating. Eventually, my nine-year-old son Quinn asks a completely reasonable question. “Why are we going so fast?” I tell him I want the flower beds to look beautiful when his mom gets home. To which he responds with another totally reasonable question: “Because you are trying make her happy?”

The word “exactly” is on the tip of my tongue. But then I bite my tongue.

I have an opportunity here to save my son a lot of heartache, disappointment, resentment, and conflict. You see, many of us spend our whole lives trying to make our loved ones happy. Years of believing our worthiness can be tallied by the number of smiles we put on the faces of other people. Years of bitter disappointment, as our success rate remains frustratingly low. And when we don’t get the results we’re looking for, we get ashamed of our failures.

Or we get resentful, thinking of our loved ones as hopelessly ungrateful people.

The truth, though, is that they are just people. Ordinary people, with their own inner world. Their own moods and wounds and worries and hang-ups. Ordinary people who are responsible for their own ordinary emotions, just as we are responsible for our own.

When it comes to ordinary people—all of us, in other words—there are at least three good reasons we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy:

First, you can’t do it. I can barely make my kids brush their own teeth; what are the chances I will somehow figure out the trick to rearranging their inner world, with all of its heart and soul and neurotransmitters and synapses? If they don’t brush their teeth, they get consequences, and that helps a little. Have you ever tried to give someone a consequence for being unhappy? It backfires.

Second, sometimes, what makes someone happy isn’t even good for them. For instance, if I gave my kids everything that makes them happy, they’d sit in front of televisions and iPads all day long, eating popcorn and chocolate, drinking juice and soda. We’d probably have to catheterize them. If you’re primary goal in life is to make someone happy, you will often harm them in your effort to happy them.

Third, sometimes, what makes someone else happy isn’t good for you. For example, if someone is only happy when they’re “right,” and you stay silent so they can feel happy, while all of the good and lovely and important things you have to say remain trapped inside of you, then trying to make this someone happy is the last thing you should be doing. There are a multitude of ways to slowly wither and die inside; doing so while telling yourself that you’re doing it on behalf of someone you love is a particularly insidious one.

So, Quinn is waiting for an answer, but instead I respond with a question.

“Bud, when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re determined to be grumpy for a while, is there anything I can do to make you happy?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and then admits with a rueful smile, “No.” Then, I tell him this:

You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

Perhaps it sounds like I’m mincing words here, like I’m creating a fine line to walk on. But consider those flowers in my wife’s mulched beds. Do I make them grow when I water them? No. I increase the odds of their flourishing, but there are all sorts of forces and powers within the flowers themselves that will dictate their growth apart from my actions. And there are all sorts of uncontrollable circumstances—rain and sun and hail, and hungry deer, for instance—that will have a far greater influence on their outcome than my hose.

Similarly, the burden of love is desiring the flourishing of another—their happiness—while accepting that you are limited in your ability to make it happen.

Does that sound hard? It is. It is very hard. But it is also very good. Because this is true of love, as well:

The burden of love is also the blessing of love.

Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, without concern for the outcome, is the culmination of true love—it is freedom from conditionality and thus it is freedom itself, for both the giver the receiver.

Or, in the words of Frederick Buechner,

By all the laws of both logic and simple arithmetic, to give yourself away in love to another would seem to mean that you end up with less of yourself left than you had to begin with. But the miracle is that just the reverse is true, logic and arithmetic go hang. To give yourself away in love to somebody else—as a man and a woman give themselves away to each other at a wedding—is to become for the first time yourself fully. To live not just for yourself alone anymore but for another self to whom you swear to be true—plight your troth to, your truth to—is in a new way to come fully alive.

When my wife pulls in the driveway, the car stops and she gets out and she raves about the beauty of the flower beds. We increased the odds of her happiness. And this time, what we longed for happened. Next time, it might not.

And that is okay. In fact, it is better than okay.

Indeed, that is the burden and blessing of love.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.