Everyone is WRONG about happiness

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Comedian Mitch Hedberg has this great joke about red wine:

I like red wine; this girl said “doesn’t red wine give you a headache?”

“Ya, eventually, but the first and middle part are amazing”

That’s kind of how I feel about yo-yo dieting. Yeah, in the end you wind up fat and out of shape. But, before that, discovering a new fad diet gets you super-excited and super-motivated, and for a while you look and feel amazing.

The problem of yo-yo dieting is well known. And the solution isn’t some big mystery either. Hopefully you eventually get around to adopting a long-term, sustainable strategy for staying healthy.

But what about the problem of yo-yo living?

Your life isn’t where you want it to be. You’re less happy, more anxious, and more depressed than you’d like to be. So you read the latest self-help book or listen to the latest self-help course. You go all in on some new path that promises happiness. You start out primed with motivation and for a while you’re seeing results.

But then six months or a year or two years later, you’re right back where you started. What the hell happened?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because unlike with dieting, no one seems to know: what does a sustainable path to happiness look like?

Happiness as addition

The most intuitive path to happiness is addition: I’ll be happy when I…

  • Get this job
  • Get this promotion
  • Quit this job
  • Start my own business
  • Sell my business
  • Make this much money
  • Get married
  • Get divorced
  • Lose this weight
  • Gain this muscle
  • Buy this thing
  • Sell this thing

Happiness, on this view, is what emerges when you get the things that you want. Yet in practice this doesn’t seem to work very well. Social scientist Arthur Brooks recounts his own experience with happiness-as-addition:

On my 40th birthday I made a bucket list of things I hoped to do or achieve. They were mainly accomplishments only a wonk could want: writing books and columns about serious subjects, teaching at a top school, traveling to give lectures and speeches, maybe even leading a university or think tank. Whether these were good and noble goals or not, they were my goals, and I imagined that if I hit them, I would be satisfied.

I found that list nine years ago, when I was 48, and realized that I had achieved every item on it. I had been a tenured professor, then the president of a think tank. I was giving frequent speeches, had written some books that had sold well, and was writing columns for The New York Times. But none of that had brought me the lasting joy I’d envisioned. Each accomplishment thrilled me for a day or a week — maybe a month, never more — and then I reached for the next rung on the ladder.

What lesson did he take away? Here’s what he would later tell his teenage daughter:

As we wind our way through life, I explained, satisfaction — the joy from fulfillment of our wishes or expectations — is evanescent. No matter what we achieve, see, acquire, or do, it seems to slip from our grasp. . . .

Satisfaction, I told my daughter, is the greatest paradox of human life. We crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, and then it vanishes.

So what’s the solution?

When getting what you want fails to lead to happiness, you often start to think: maybe happiness is about subtraction.

Happiness as subtraction

According to famed entrepreneur Naval Ravikant:

I believe happiness is really a default state. Happiness is there when you remove the sense of something missing in your life. . . . [Happiness] is about the absence of desire, especially the absence of external things. . . . Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, and the way it is.

This is happiness-as-subtraction. If you stop wanting things, you stop being dissatisfied, and if you stop being dissatisfied, you’re happy.

And this seems to work. Virginia Postrel notes that the US often scores substantially lower on the World Happiness Report than Scandinavian countries. But she goes on to point out how misleading this is.

The underlying Gallup survey uses a question called the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, better known as the Cantril Ladder. It goes like this:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

What kind of life you consider “possible” determines how you rank the life you have. The Cantril Ladder measures the difference between imagination and reality. High scores go to those who can’t picture a significantly better life than the one they already know. A country, or a class, with modest opportunities will score higher than one with great ones.

Virginia sees this as a criticism, but for the happiness-as-subtraction crowd, it’s not. It’s precisely what we should be striving for. If we can stop having ambitious wants and desires, then we’ll be content, and contentment? That’s what happiness is all about.

There’s something really weird about this view. We’re biological creatures, and our emotional mechanism was designed by natural selection. It’s hard to believe that our best possible emotion state would be utterly disconnected from life-sustaining activity. I mean, we need things in order to survive! A person who truly desired nothing, “especially…external things” would be dead.

And when we actually look at the lives of the happiness-as-subtraction crowd, they don’t live like monks (or even like Scandinavians!). Naval is a hugely productive and successful entrepreneur and investor. Are we really supposed to believe that working really hard for things you do not want is possible, let alone the path to happiness?

Happiness as illusion

What I really think is going on with the happiness-as-subtraction advocates is that they’re rejecting happiness as the goal in favor of something allegedly superior to happiness.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson is explicit about this. He has called happiness “cotton candy,” and urged us to strive for something better than happiness: meaning.

I recently came upon this tweet, which echos a perspective made famous by political commentator David Brooks:

To care about your eulogy is to see your life from the perspective of an outsider, to judge it as an impersonal third party and ask: was it a good life?

Similar to the happiness-as-subtraction view, the happiness-as-illusion view asks you to put aside our desires. But instead of basking in the nirvana of wanting nothing, your duty is to assume responsibilities that will make you worthy of praise and approval.

Example:

You might think: but I like music! I like TV! Yeah, okay. But it’s your eulogy that matters, and no one will care what you liked. They’ll care about what you achieved. So get to work and do something good for the world.

Another version of this view comes from Nietzsche, who argued that we must suffer in order to achieve great things.

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering — do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness — was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

But why care about achieving “great” things, if they don’t lead to happiness? What stake could you possibly have in living a life you did not enjoy, just so people can praise you after you’re dead?

So here’s the question: if it’s true that happiness can’t be achieved by addition or by subtraction, is your only choice to reject happiness as a worthy goal?

Happiness as integration

Think about the solution to yo-yo dieting. The problem is that radically cutting calories or food groups, though it can work temporarily, robs you of vital energy, nutrients, and pleasure. A healthy, sustainable diet is one that meets all of your needs, including your need to enjoy eating.

For some people, achieving that kind of diet does involve addition: they need more vegetables, or more protein, or more calories.

For others, it involves subtraction: less pizza, less sugar, fewer calories.

But addition and subtraction are tools, and their purpose is to achieve integration. To formulate a diet that meets all their needs and doesn’t undermine any of their needs. And since psychological needs are just as important as physiological ones, a healthy diet that isn’t enjoyable? It’s as bad as one that consists of nothing but cheeseburgers.

And that’s how I think about happiness. Happiness is about integration: it’s about seeking out values that fit together into a harmonious whole and that fulfill all of your needs–physical, mental, emotional.

Sometimes this requires addition. If you don’t have a fulfilling central purpose, you’d better go out and get one. If you don’t have a fulfilling relationship, you’d better find and build one.

Sometimes it requires subtraction. If you’re in an unhealthy relationship or have self-destructive habits, those things need to go. If you’re trying to numb negative feelings by buying things that don’t genuinely add to your life, you need to address those feelings, not temporarily cover them up.

The challenging part of happiness is in discovering what sorts of things are valuable, and can fit together into a harmonious whole. Really, that’s what ethics should be about. It should give you the blueprint of what an integrated, human way of life consists of–of the values and virtues that make happiness possible. Your job should be to adapt that blueprint to your own, unique life.

That’s the project I undertake in my forthcoming book, The Self-Made Manifesto: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness. For now I want to touch on one aspect of integration that isn’t obvious, and that helps address a lot of the confusions that make the wrong views of happiness plausible.

We don’t just need to integrate discrete values: career, romance, mental health. We also need to integrate the pursuit of values across time.

Arthur Brooks argues that one of the reasons happiness-as-addition doesn’t work is because of the hedonic treadmill: once we buy something or achieve something, we aren’t satisfied, but instead focus on new goals and aims. This can lead to the kind of enduring dissatisfaction that Virginia Postrel says characterizes people in an opportunity-rich society.

But the problem there isn’t with our desires, and the solution isn’t to rid ourselves of desire. The problem is with how we judge our lives given the existence of unfulfilled desires.

Business coach Dan Sullivan has a concept he calls “the Gap and the Gain.” He found that entrepreneurs typically judge themselves by the gap between where they are and where they want to be. Instead, Dan encourages them to judge themselves by where they are relative to where they were.

  • The Gap: “I’m trying to build a $10 million business and right now my revenues are only $1M.”
  • The Gain: “Last year we did $500K in business; this year we’ve grown that to $1M.”

The Gap is important. There should always be a gap between where you are and where you want to be, because you should always be learning, growing, improving, and striving for more. But you also need to keep in mind that happiness doesn’t come from closing the Gap once and for all.

Instead, it comes from taking pride in the Gain…and having Gratitude for all the values currently in your life. (“Appreciation” is a better word for what I mean than gratitude, but “appreciation” doesn’t start with a “g” so too bad for precision.)

One of the great mistakes you can make is to view happiness as a sense of finality, where the work of living is done. There is no “happily ever after.” The work of living is never done: happiness is not the outcome of the life process, the way a car is the outcome of a manufacturing process. Happiness is a perspective on the ongoing life process.

Yes, there are certain things you have to achieve in order to be happy. I don’t think it’s possible to be happy if you have no clue what you want to do with your life or if you’re constantly lying to yourself and others. But the existence of unfulfilled desires and unmet goals should not per se be a barrier to happiness. They are an inextricable part of the ongoing pursuit of happiness.

To take an analogy, don’t think of the victory at the end of the big game. But also don’t think merely of the joy of playing the game. Both the process of pursuing your values and the joy of achieving them are components of happiness. A better analogy for happiness is the experience of a winning season. Things are going well. You have the day-to-day thrill of playing the game — and the day-to-day challenges. You have moments of joy when you win games — and the occasional failures, which are experienced as the price of admission.

That is what you should aim for in life. That is what life is all about. To commit yourself to the pursuit of happiness is to draw a line in the sand and say: I’m going to do everything in my power to make the external and internal conditions of my life as good as possible. I’m going to settle for nothing less than a winning season.

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Don Watkins

Don Watkins

Writer. Speaker. Thinker.

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