At a basic level, you probably aspire to be just one thing in your life and work--happy. Most entrepreneurs and leaders hope to enjoy some decent level of wealth and respect for their efforts, and the desire to make a difference typically is a genuine motivator.

Author, television host for City of Angels: Conversations That Heal LA and life coach Stephen Lovegrove, who has worked internationally with major business leaders and celebrities for more than half a dozen years, says he's spotted a major mistake people consistently make when it comes to achieving this coveted feeling.

Happiness is an "inside job."

Generally, Lovegrove told me in an interview, people expect something on the outside to give them the happiness they want--that is, they routinely believe that achieving happiness is simply about finding and shifting the right missing puzzle piece. If they simply discover the right amount of income, venture or the right romantic partner, for instance, all will be well.

"No matter who we are, where we live or what we do," Lovegrove asserts, "here is a universal truth: We all live from the inside out. Every single one of us."

So dangling happiness in front of yourself as an end goal is what Lovegrove deems a "misguided attempt at self-improvement." And if you try to create your lasting happiness from what's external, the result is going to be only in disappointment, frustration and resentment, and you're not going to be productive or successful. The proverbial carrot will move only further and further away from you, and you'll never get to eat it.

As evidence that trying to "maximize" success can work against you, consider research led by Iris Mauss, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work shows that the higher value you put on happiness, the more likely it is that you'll be unhappy.

Lovegrove also points to the collective research of positive psychology expert Shawn Anchor. Anchor's work through Harvard University, summarized in his book The Happiness Advantage, shows that underlying internal happiness drastically increases your chances of coming out on top.

Searching outside yourself for joy yields two big issues.

Lovegrove identifies two specific problems with an externally-driven approach to happiness, the first of which is that you unintentionally postpone your joy indefinitely. Because you're always thinking that fulfillment and meaning are down the road and that they're magically going to appear later, you can fail to live meaningfully in the present.

Second, you can start looking for happiness in the wrong places, which can lead to putting demands on people and things in your life that can't and won't ever be met.

Building happiness from the inside out.

Once you have accepted personal responsibility for yourself and have built your internal foundation of happiness, then you can create external success from it.

I find that building happiness from the inside out comes down to accepting a few things:

  • Flexibility rather than black and white, rigid beliefs.
  • Forgiveness, both to yourself and others.
  • Personal permission to explore, learn or try.
  • Educated, strategic choice of when to quit in favor of a more beneficial option.
  • Your status as irreplaceable and uniquely qualified to make your individual.
  • Connections and difference in the world.
  • Conscious decisions about how you react or respond.
  • Consistent, truthful communication.
  • A willingness to work with what you've got, rather than what you expected.

As leaders, we want to believe that we can force a positive outcome with anything, and in fact, much of your daily responsibility is to manipulate externals for gains. But happiness doesn't work that way. As Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, "Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."

So let go of "should" and "must" and desire instead of demand. Look in the mirror, because the only path to being happy is you.