One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken — so near and yet so far — if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.
As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness/pleasure only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.
An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:
“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.
This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.” — Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism
Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy — a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it.
“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap” — William Bennett
Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian — a social psychologist based in Melbourne — identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, an effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.
It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed — end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness — their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.
“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’ — Friedrich Nietzsche
“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.” — Alain De Botton
In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in constant flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that happiness cannot be coveted, the happier we’ll be.
“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit” — Daniel Gilbert
We’re not the only one’s suffering — our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again — amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we also suffocate ourselves.
So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?
The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We’re the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of liberalism — the idea that each of us is wonderfully unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.
In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl
“Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” — Helen Keller
In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.
“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something” — Harold S. Kushner
“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” — Martin E. P. Seligman
What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?
Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.