Designing the Mind

The Myth of the Happiness Trap

Why Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong

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It’s been called the happiness trap – the idea that pursuing happiness will ensure we never achieve it. It’s generally followed by the very profound-sounding claim that the good life is all about finding “meaning.”

The irony is that most of us don’t really know what meaning means. Is it a coherent explanation for the universe and our place in it? Is it a sense of purpose in our work? A personal narrative? All of the above? All we really know is that it sounds good.

Is happiness itself really an impossible goal? Or could it be that most people pursuing happiness just aren’t very good at it? Let’s explore.

We start trying to be wise when we realize that we are not born knowing how to live, but that life is a skill that has to be acquired.

– Alain de Botton

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It’s become a common refrain: You cannot achieve happiness by pursuing it directly.

Happiness is a mere byproduct. If you want to be satisfied in your life, shift your focus to something else and the happiness will follow.

And it would certainly be interesting if it were true. How many things can we say you are most likely to achieve by ignoring them?

Imagine if we said things like “The only way to get to Seattle is to stop trying to reach it directly” or “You can’t get a PhD by working for it – a PhD is what happens while you’re focused on something else.”

But somehow, it seems to make sense when it comes to happiness. In a recent Psyche article, one psychiatrist argues that “happiness is a ghost that’s not worth pursuing.” And in The Socrates Express, Eric Weiner provides a seemingly sensible corollary to the classic phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living:”

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but neither is the overexamined one. “Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so,” said the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, articulating the Pleasure Paradox (also known as Paradox of Hedonism). The more we try to seize happiness the more it slips from our grasp. Happiness is a by-product, never an objective. It’s an unexpected windfall from a life lived well.

Now I can acknowledge that there is something true these thinkers are trying to convey. But I also think we have to explain how I have personally been striving for happiness since adolescence, and virtually always feel I have attained it. How can we make sense of all this?

Imagine you start playing poker with some more experienced friends. You learn the rules and start having fun, but you aren’t too concerned with the outcome. At one point, you go all in just for fun, without even realizing you have a great hand, and you end up beating your experienced friends in your first game!

After this, you get more invested and want to keep your streak going. You start taking the game seriously – you start trying to win. But somehow, you just can’t recreate that magic from the first game. Weeks of poker nights go by, and you can’t win a single game.

You walk away from this experience concluding that poker is one of those games you can’t win if you’re trying to win. You have to be focused on other things for Lady Luck to work her magic.

And you would be wrong. See, even though luck and mindset play a role in the outcome of a game like poker, there’s a reason why the world champions of poker are generally people who have been obsessing over the game their whole lives, and not say, beginners who are just messing around.

And there’s a reason it’s hard to win week after week, regardless of your mindset. Poker is a complex game, and you could spend a whole lifetime trying to master it without ever fully perfecting your skills. Luck will always play a certain role, but being better at the game means being less reliant on luck.

Now let’s return to the topic at hand. Say you spend a day trying your best to be happy – going to the spa, going shopping, and winding down with a nice bottle of wine. But when you check your satisfaction levels, you find it didn’t work! Still unhappy.

The following month, you reluctantly agree to go on a Habitat for Humanity trip with a friend, working to build homes for people in need. And despite all the hard work and sacrifice, you end up feeling more fulfilled than you have in years! You weren’t even trying to be happy – it just happened.

Like the poker player, you might walk away from this thinking happiness only happens when you aren’t aiming for it. But again, you would be wrong.

Turns out, you were just bad at happiness. You thought things like wine and spa trips and shopping were the kind of things that produced happiness, but it seems discipline, community, and altruism are more reliable sources.

The accidental happiness you got from your philanthropic trip was beginner’s luck. A more experienced happiness-seeker might have engineered a trip like this on purpose, but it was all you could do to fall into it. As I argue in Become Who You Are:

We are continually surprised to find that the life events we expect to defeat or delight us simply don’t deliver. We stumble in the same way one would stumble when navigating a foreign terrain with the wrong map.

You (in this scenario) are an amateur happiness-seeker. You haven’t acquired a very good map for navigating your well-being, so you are reliant on luck to make it happen on occasion. And that’s okay. You have the rest of your life to get better at it.

Life is a complex game. Sustaining satisfaction requires great levels of wisdom. And even when you’ve cultivated that wisdom, there are still variables that are out of your control.

This is why philosophy is so important. We all start out with bad maps for happiness, and culture perpetuates those bad maps. But philosophy allows us to question them. It gets us out of our ingrained ways of thinking and exposes us to the counterintuitive truths of the good life.

Weiner’s corollary is close in a way. For the unexamined life, accidental happiness is the best you can hope for. We study philosophy so we can learn to make happiness happen on purpose. And though I don’t think I’ll ever perfect the game, a lifetime of philosophical study has made me quite good at it.

If you aren’t happy at any given time, don’t turn your back on the goal of happiness. Just because you haven’t mastered the game yet doesn’t mean your only hope is luck. Set your sights on building that wisdom, putting together that map, and getting better at the game.

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