Happiness, Contentment, and Purpose

“Being happy” is a terrible, self-defeating life goal.  So why do we keep seeing advice about how to be happier in pop culture?

Ignorance about the corrosive effects of pursuing happiness is probably one reason, but I think there’s probably another, deeper reason as well, that has to do with a deep conflict in how we achieve a sense of fulfillment in our lives.

The basic problem with pursuing happiness as a goal in itself is the hedonic treadmill, the concept that people always tend to reset to a pre-determined level of happiness, even after major life events.  Eventually you get used to everything – even big things, like winning the lottery, or losing a spouse – and you end up right back where you were before, neither happier nor sadder.  Because of this, pursuing happiness directly actually reduces it, because you get frustrated with your inability to achieve your (impossible) goal.

Some professional psychologists would disagree with this idea, and say that you can actually increase your happiness.  If you focus on creating positive habits, building relationships, etc., your overall level of happiness can shift for the better (and, conversely, if you neglect those things, your happiness level can drop).  But I think that what these folks call “happiness” doesn’t really match the conventional understanding of happiness.

The article linked above says specifically “researchers find that achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort.”  I think a lot of people (me included) would say that the kind of psychological discomfort they’re talking about is pretty hostile, maybe even antithetical, to happiness.  It’s one thing to say that reaching out to others in a time of emotional distress will improve your chances of happiness in the long run; it’s a totally different thing to say that you’re happy in that moment of reaching out.

No matter how good you get at cultivating happiness, you can’t be happy all the time; happiness is a transitory state.  Being happy is a reward built into our brains over billions of years of evolution for doing those things that keep us alive and our genes reproducing; that is, establishing social ties, achieving things at elevate our social status, and keeping ourselves healthy (among others).  You can’t shortcut to the reward (happiness) without doing the work.  Once you eat your happiness cake, it’s gone; if you want another one, you have to start baking again.

So this is where, I think, both the self-defeating nature of pursuing happiness comes in, and the more superficial reason it keeps appearing in pop culture comes in too.  If you want to be happy, you have to both understand that you can’t be happy all the time, and realize that you have to pursue the activities that lead to happiness, not just try and jump straight to happiness itself.  There’s plenty of pop culture that understands this, but because those creators see this truth, their creations don’t seem to be, superficially, about happiness.  BoJack Horseman is an excellent Netflix show that is about (among many other things) the disconnect between seeking happiness and being happy, but the themes and lessons in that show aren’t referenced in articles and books about happiness, because those truths are challenging to grasp.

The pop culture writing about happiness per se isn’t about understanding the complexity of happiness, it’s about short-circuiting it.  It says “You know that happiness is fleeting, and that it takes work to keep yourself open to those moments of joy, but what if it didn’t have to be that way?”  And the problem with that is that it’s simply wrong; it does have to be that way, because we human beings simply are that way.

But there is another paradox at the heart of the pursuit of happiness, and that is the tension between contentment and purpose.

Some of the activities that increase your receptivity to happiness boost your contentment with life.  Having set routines, regularly socializing with friends and family, and taking time to indulge occasionally are all likely to make you more pleased with your current lot in life.  But there are other activities, like setting and achieving goals and tackling challenging activities, that are about pushing yourself and changing your circumstances.  There is a fundamental conflict between these two types of activities.  Why change yourself and your circumstances, when you’ve been working to make yourself pleased with the way things are right now?

Talking about happiness directly is a way of sidestepping this difficult issue.  If you never talk about what it is that you have to do to make yourself receptive to happiness, then you never have to acknowledge that the pursuit of happiness is hard.  You never have to discuss how to achieve that delicate balance between improving yourself and your life on the one hand, and feeling comfortable with your situation and in your own skin on the other.  And you never have to talk about how each of us has to navigate that maze ourselves, because that balance is different for everyone.

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