Why Chasing Happiness Never Works…and what to do instead

An uphappy plate with a pink background

What does it mean to be happy?

The pursuit of happiness, right? I mean it’s in the Declaration of Independence, it has to be important?

You hear people talking about it ALL the time:

“I just want him to be happy,” “My greatest hope is that my kids grow up to be happy.” “I need a job that makes me happy.”

Happiness is on our mind!

If we can achieve happiness, we know we’ve made it.

And that’s great, right?

All of this seems fine, it seems right. Happiness is way better than unhappiness!. Hell, it’s certainly a more noble goal than say, money, or fame.

How many movies have we seen where our protagonist, after hijinks and woes, finally figures out that happiness was what he was after the whole time!

Cue voice over “Ole Joe had everything, CEO of a company, beautiful wife, big house…but was he happy?”

And you know, a lot of the hype is real. We’ve linked happiness to all kinds of wellness benefits, including cardiovascular health, better immune systems, and less inflammation. Who wants to be inflamed?

Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, tells us that being happy will increase our productivity and possibilities for success. He literally trains top execs on how to be happy so they can outperform their competition.

So happiness seems like the most important pursuit we could ever undertake. We should all be diving headfirst into the happiness pool.

But if you look around, that doesn’t seem to be happening. How many people do you know that aren’t happy? Or at least don’t seem to be happy. What about you? Do you feel happy?

This article isn’t about how to become happy. You can find tons of that shit all over the internet or in the self-help section of your local book store. No, this is going to be about some of the pitfalls of happiness. This is going to be about exploiting the cracks in the happiness facade. And above all, a potential alternative to get you to the life you want to live.

Here we go.

Happiness vs Becoming happy

I’ve already told you that studies have shown all sorts of benefits associated with being happy. But what about becoming happy? For all those out there who are currently not happy, how can you get happy so you can get the goods? 

That’s a great question because tons of people are not happy. I look around all the time and see people that aren’t smiling, or singing blissfully to woodland creatures perched on their shoulders.

Well, bad news.

Brace.

There’s considerable evidence that the pursuit of happiness isn’t so great for us.

To clarify. Being happy = good. Becoming happy = not good.

Jen Kim, in her article Why You Shouldn’t Pursue Happiness: new research explores the correlation between happiness and free time, digs into a Rutgers study that searched for a correlation between free time and happiness. Why, you ask? Because free time has a strong correlation to how happy we feel. The argument is that the more free time we experience, the more of our life we associate with performing happy activities.

What she found was discouraging. She discovered that the more we seek out happiness, the less and less free time we perceive to have. She notes that “it is a literal waste of time to try to turn happiness into a goal or something that you will one day achieve. In fact, this mindset encourages us to trade experiences for material possessions to save time but still “buy” happiness, which is a scientifically proven poor substitute for genuine happiness.”

Frank Martella reaches similar conclusions in his article, 4 Reasons to Stop Pursuing Happiness & What to do Instead. Looking across many studies, Martella demonstrates a direct correlation between pursuing happiness and unhappiness.

I won’t belabor all his reasons (you can read the article yourself). I will tell you that he concludes that “The more you value [Happiness], the more desperately you pursue it, the more it eludes you.” And that we’d all do better to spend our time living meaningful lives than trying to be happy.

So we’re at an impasse. It seems that being happy will unlock doors of bliss and success, but attempting to reach happiness is fraught with trouble and failure and, dare I say it, UNHAPPINESS.

It almost feels deterministic. If you’re born happy, hooray. You will reap the benefits. But if you’re not, you’re shit out of luck.

So what are the legions of sad paps to do? Abandon hope? Live sullen, forlorn lives of misery and then die? 

Well, not so fast. It seems clear from all these articles that happiness isn’t the problem. It’s looking for happiness that fucks us. The pursuit, the goal of happiness. That’s where the car starts sliding off the road.

But how are we to be happy if we don’t pursue it?

Is it possible?

Humor a thought for a second.  

What if unhappy people don’t know what real happiness is? And by association, they fail to pursue the correct goal?

If I’m right in this hunch, the next step would be defining terms.

What is happiness?

Towards a definition of happiness

So what the hell even is happiness ?!

Do we even know?

If I ask 100 people on the street, will I get the same answer? What are they going to tell me? That happiness is a feeling? A sense? Something that happens when you smile?

Ask yourself the question. What is happiness? I bet you struggle to find a clear and easy definition.

Happiness, scientifically, is pretty simple. Physiologically, it’s nothing more than a hit of dopamine to the brain that triggers our pleasure centers. That’s it.

From a survival perspective, this is super important. Happiness ensured (and continues to ensure) that we seek out those things that keep us going, like eating lots of high caloric food and screwing each other.

In fact, research has demonstrated that mice who are deficient in dopamine will stop eating. They just roll over on their backs and say fuck it. They don’t get that hit of goodness from a good meal, so why even bother? 

So there’s your scientific definition. And that fine and all, but maybe a little too visceral for you. We are evolved conscious beings, aren’t we? Perhaps we need a more…spiritual definition of happiness.

Maybe you say, Tim, “I think happiness is deeper for people. It’s more than a chemical response in our brains when we kiss a pretty girl. It’s an important emotive response in our culture.” 

And I’m not against that idea. Even if we root happiness in biology, it surely extends beyond our bodies in the way that we culturally perceive and interact with this emotion.

So let’s follow that thread. In this instance, happiness is an emotive response to stimuli that fills us with a sense of well being. That is to say, happiness is when something makes us feel good.   

That’s a pretty good definition: an emotive response to stimuli that fills us with a sense of well being.

If we’re all in agreement, let’s take the next step and see what it takes to get to this feeling.

Why chasing emotive response fucks us

So just to recap, happiness is an emotive response to stimuli that fills us with a sense of well being.

If we want to be happy, it stands to reason that we should chase that stimulus. Right?

Wrong.

This is the trap. This is why all those people trying to get happy are stepping in a big ole pile of it.

I think if we look at it critically, it’s easy to see how the pursuit of happiness for its own sake can devolve into the pursuit of pleasure. A pursuit of immediate gratification. An addiction. I mean, why do we have drugs, pornography, and reality tv. Isn’t it for that very reason? And please, tell me how many happy addicts you know.

But look, it’s not always that bleak. We’re not all happy, but we’re also not all addicts. Instead, this pursuit of happiness and immediate gratification demonstrates itself in much more shaded forms. For example, consumerism. We buy a nice scarf to make us happy, but how long does that hit of happy last.

We get big houses and nice cars, but again, the happiness of that purchase fades.

Or maybe it’s pursuits. Think of the adrenaline junky getting a high from jumping out of planes. But you can’t live perpetually sky diving. There’s all that time between.

Here’s the problem with chasing this idea of happiness. Happiness, like all emotional states, is fleeting. We’re not meant to live in a single emotion. It’s okay to feel sad, but you wouldn’t want to be sad all the time. That’s called depression! There’s literally medication for it. How could ALWAYS being happy be any different?

Or imagine a world where you were forever angry. Like you were angry every second of your life. How stressful would that be?

Trying to capture a fleeting emotional state is fundamentally problematic. It leads us down some dark paths.

So what’s up with all the happy people? If happiness is fleeting, how can there be happy people?

Happiness is not being happy, it’s being fulfilled.

Let’s get to the point

People fail at “becoming happy” because they chase a misconception of happiness. They believe that happiness is the experience of euphoria they feel when something good happens in their lives.

Chasing this unadulterated pursuit of happiness is mostly to blame for people’s vices and failures.

The reality is that the happy crowd isn’t “happy” per se. No, they are FULFILLED.

People that are FULFILLED in their lives are “happy,” so to speak, but differently. Not in the, “I’m smiling from ear to ear every second of my life way” but instead,  “I’m living the life I want to live” way.

And here’s the real rub. Fulfillment is fundamentally born of suffering.

In this article from psychology today about happiness we get a similar story. In it, the author notes that “Happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; researchers find that achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort.”

Think of any real achievement you’re most proud of. Running a marathon, a project at work, an award you won. I guarantee you that you were not “happy” all the way through it. In fact, it was probably pretty god damn miserable and dark in the middle somewhere. As someone who runs a lot, I’ve never felt “happiness” midway through a long race.

But that suffering led to growth, and that growth leads to fulfillment.

Think about children. People love their kids. I love my kids. But it’s a pretty painful experience creating and raising another human. But it leads to fulfillment. 

Ultimately, fulfillment gives us a form of sustainable joy through purpose and meaning. It creates happiness, sure, but it also opens space for a variety of other emotional states. You can be fulfilled and still feel pain or sadness or grief. These states come and go. But what they leave behind is fulfillment, and that is our best source of sustainable happiness.

Takeaway

Happiness is all fine and good. I’m not going to be down on happiness. It has it places when you win a game of trivial pursuit or kiss a pretty girl. Hell, happiness is great.

However, it is also fleeting. Because of that, it is folly to chase it. It’s like chasing a rainbow. You see it clear as day, but it ain’t there.

Your best bet is to enjoy it when it comes and be grateful that it came after it left.

A better pursuit for the legions of unhappy is fulfillment. How can we lead fulfilling lives? Lives that give us purpose. Lives that allow us to grow and become better and truer versions of ourselves.

And yeah, that will often involve all those things we don’t associate with happiness: anger, frustration, sorrow, sadness, failure.

But it’s through this process that we can find a sustainable form of happiness.  

It is through these pursuits that we’ll get to pass across the line into the camp of the happy.

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Happiness might not be as simple as it seems. In fact, it\'s full of pitfalls and troubles. In this article, I\'ll discuss why happiness isn\'t always the best answer, and offer another way to live a meaningful life. Click to read more!