Everything you think you know about happiness is wrong

Sadness has its time and place.
Sadness has its time and place.
Image: Reuters/Eliana Aponte
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For many of us, happiness is the ultimate goal in life, worth pursuing above all else. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have agreed. But recently, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of mistakes we make when pursuing happiness. I’ve been wondering whether the biggest mistake might be seeing happiness as something we should be aiming for at all.

Mistake 1: Not thinking about what happiness means

For all the focus we devote to happiness, we rarely spell out what it means. In fact, there are multiple ways we might interpret “happiness.”

One important distinction is between intense, short-term forms of happiness—excitement, euphoria—and less intense, but perhaps more stable, feelings of calmness and contentment. Receiving a compliment from someone you really like might feel fantastic for a few hours, but it’s likely to dissipate in a day or so. By contrast, feeling like you having meaningful and supportive relationships in your life can give you a lower, but much more consistent, happiness boost. In an interesting paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers distinguished between two different kinds of happiness—calm and excitement—and found that they were experienced differently depending on the time frame the person was thinking in. When we’re focused on the present, we’re more likely to feel happiness in the form of calmness; when we’re focused on the future, we’re more likely to feel excitement.

It’s not that some forms of happiness are necessarily better than others—they’re different, and pursuing them means different things. In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Hecht points out that different kinds of happiness are rarely in harmony with one another. Going after intense, positive experiences in the moment might lead us to neglect the things that lead to longer-term life satisfaction—neglecting old friends in favor of exciting new acquaintances or skipping a day of work to go to the movies.

So if we want to be “happy,” we need to think carefully about the kind of happiness we’re aiming for and what tradeoffs we’re willing to make. If we don’t do this, pursuing “happiness” as a broad goal could mean you end up going after the wrong things.

Mistake 2: Looking for happiness in the wrong places

There are many things in life that give us an intense, short-term boost of happiness: getting a promotion, buying a new car or piece of clothing, or receiving a compliment. When we experience that boost, we naturally want more of whatever caused it—intense positive emotions are strongly reinforcing. Because the feedback is much more immediate and intense, strong emotions can be much more reinforcing than sustained, but less intense, positive emotions we get from a satisfying period of hard work, or a relationship with someone we’ve known for a long time. We might be naturally motivated to seek out things that bring us more intense forms of happiness. This is fine, of course, if you’ve reflected and decided that’s a tradeoff you want to make. But for most people, I imagine that’s not the case.

It’s also natural to feel your happiness depends a lot on how certain key aspects of your life are going: how much you enjoy your career, and whether you have close, meaningful relationships. But this could be more dangerous than it seems. Research in psychology suggests that we tend to overestimate the long-term impact (pdf) of even the biggest life changes on our happiness. We’re surprisingly good at adapting to new things—good and bad—and returning to a baseline level of happiness. This doesn’t mean you won’t be happier with your life if you’re in a job you find fulfilling than if you dread going to work every day. But it does mean we should be careful not to put too much of our hope for happiness in “finding the perfect job/relationship.” Even if we do find these things, we’ll inevitably find more things to be dissatisfied about. The unfortunate nature of happiness, it seems, is that it’s like a treadmill: there’s always more ground to cover.

Mistake 3: Wishing things were different

Have you ever been in a meeting at work, desperately wishing you were somewhere else? Or wished you looked slightly different or lived somewhere else or that a skill you struggled with came more easily to you?

Pursuing happiness can backfire when we start wanting to change things that aren’t within our control. It’s easy to think of ways in which we’d be happier if things were different, which is precisely why we’re never totally satisfied. Ultimately, the things we think our happiness depends on aren’t totally within our control. We can’t control whether we get our dream job or not. We can’t control what other people think of us. We can’t control the weather. We can influence some of these things with our actions, but sometimes things don’t go our way and there’s nothing we could have done differently.

Wanting to change things that aren’t within your control is perhaps the best way to live a life filled with frustration and dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, it can be the very pursuit of happiness that often leads people to this state of frustration with how things currently are.

Mistake 4: Thinking we should be happy all the time

Because there are so many things influencing our happiness that aren’t in our control, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. Bad things are going to happen to you over the course of your life. Someone you love will get sick and die. You’ll have days where getting through everything you have on your plate feels like an impossible struggle. You’ll experience your fair share of negative emotions, and that’s OK. Fighting those negative emotions when they’re appropriate—telling yourself you shouldn’t be sad when something sad has happened, or beating yourself up for feeling stressed when you’ve got two hours to do two weeks’ worth of work—will only make things worse.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that happiness should always be the goal. But sometimes happiness really isn’t the most useful emotion to be feeling. Sometimes we can’t be euphoric, no matter how hard we try, and trying only makes things worse. Sometimes it’s OK not to be happy.

Mistake 5: Pursuing happiness at all?

Rather than asking, “How can I be happy?” I think we’d be better off asking:

  1. What do I ultimately care about and want to achieve in life?
  2. What kind of person do I want to be?

Then think about how to achieve these goals. When I asked myself the first question, I realized I care most about two things: making the world a better place while doing fulfilling work, and having close and meaningful relationships with other people. Asking the second question, I came up with a list of character traits and attitudes I want to cultivate: compassion, open-mindedness, gratitude, and curiosity. Unlike “being happy,”  these are more specific, actionable, and within my control.

Ironically, these are exactly the kinds of things that researchers would advise you focus on if you want to be happy: finding satisfying work and meaningful relationships, doing things for others, appreciating the good things in your life. The difference is that I’m not suggesting we should do these things because they’re going to make us happy. We should consider what we really care about and who we want to be, and let that guide our choices and actions. Happiness isn’t a goal, it’s a signal that we’re living life well and in accordance with what we care about. But it’s a noisy signal, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s producing it. We have to be careful to not get so caught up in chasing the signal that we lose sight of what it’s really trying to tell us.