Happiness is Overrated

Written by By Dr. Sean Condon, Founder and Clinical Director of The Flatiron Center for Psychotherapy. A clinical psychologist and supervisor in private practice for over 20 years, Dr. Condon offers expert psychotherapy and mental health treatment in New York.

Our culture tends to treat happiness as the ultimate goal. There is, in fact, a very real and active happiness industry out there doling out a lot of advice on how we can all be happier. Ironically, though, this quest often leads to exactly the opposite: A growing awareness of our unhappiness and a persistent, unavoidable sense of dissatisfaction. Researchers call this this the happiness paradox, which suggests that the very act of chasing happiness diminishes our well-being. The truth is that pursuing happiness very often leads to less contentment and more emotional discomfort.

Pursuing happiness is not the best path to achieving happiness

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The Futility of Chasing Happiness

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to happiness. Happiness, joy, elation, fun, excitement, ecstasy, and so forth are all wonderful emotions and important elements of the human experience. And, having worked with many chronically depressed patients in my career, I know what the absence of such experiences does to people. It’s chasing happiness that I’m skeptical of. The idea that happiness is the goal, a state we can achieve and one we should strive to attain and hold onto.

Imagine trying to hug a cloud. You can see it and you can almost touch it. It‘s right there in front of you and it looks great, all white and fluffy and inviting. But the moment you try to wrap your arms around it, it just evaporates. It doesn’t matter how quickly you reach for it or how hard you squeeze it, it dissolves into the ether. In fact, the harder you squeeze the more you notice how empty your arms are.

Like a white, fluffy cloud, happiness is real enough. It’s not an illusion, and the reality of it can be very pleasant. It’s just not the kind of thing you can grab or hold onto. You can’t trap it, and you can’t make it last forever. So, what to do?

Beyond Happiness: A New Paradigm for Well-being

Should happiness really be the goal? After all, happiness comes and goes. It’s probably not realistic to expect to be happy all the time, but that’s often what we end up aspiring to. And even if we could achieve some constant state of joyful positivity, is that really the apex of human experience?

Perhaps there are other qualities worth pursuing. Qualities such as self-awareness, resilience, agency, connection, purpose, and possibly even wisdom. These are human capacities that we can actively cultivate, and that contribute to a greater sense of fulfillment, well-being and contentment.

Self-Awareness: Getting to Know Yourself

Genuine self-awareness is not just about recognizing patterns, or strengths and weaknesses, or telling a more coherent story about your past. While all of that can be helpful, the kind of awareness that really makes a difference has more to do with understanding your own perspective, having a sense of how you make sense of the world. What is your way of being in the world, how does this shape your thoughts, perceptions and emotions, and what does your viewpoint leave out? Real self-awareness involves honesty, compassion and curiosity: being able to both see yourself and wonder about yourself. This is the kind of self-understanding that makes us not only more effective in life, but also enables us to learn, to stretch ourselves, and to grow.

Resilience: Tapping into your Hidden Strength

Life has ups and downs. Life throws curveballs. Life includes genuine hardships. Resilience isn’t about dodging these difficulties or pretending they don’t affect us; it’s about bouncing back. Ironically, there is strength in being able to acknowledge our pain and even our shortcomings, and by acknowledging them learning how we can move past them. We don’t always win, and we don’t have to pretend that we do. If we can acknowledge life’s challenges and how they affect us, we can learn from them and build greater emotional resilience, adaptability and personal effectiveness along the way.

Agency: Getting Behind the Wheel

We can’t control everything in life, but sometimes we also lose sight of when and how we can chart our own course. We may become mired in helplessness or anxiety, or frustration that the world doesn’t seem to cooperate with our plans. In contrast, a sense of personal autonomy and the capacity for self-direction is both powerful and empowering. We are often impacted by the world around us, but we can also act upon and shape that world. When we learn to see beyond obstacles, including those we create for ourselves, we make more room for our own choices and life feels much more manageable. We may not be able to control the traffic, but we’re still driving the car.

Competence and Mastery: The Art of Doing

Doing something well is inherently rewarding. Whether it’s playing a violin concerto, closing a big business deal, making your favorite mac and cheese recipe, or fixing a leaky faucet, we can experience a genuine sense of satisfaction in a job well done. And we should not limit ourselves to only taking pride in our accomplishments after the fact, but be open to experiencing a sense of capability and skillfulness while performing the task itself. Further, as the examples above suggest, these tasks don’t need to be momentous. If we’re open to the experience, we can discover considerable satisfaction—even fulfillment—in the exercise of even our smallest abilities.

Connection: Knowing You’re Not Alone

Meaningful personal relationships are actually critical to our sense of personal well-being. Human beings are social animals, and while we all have differing needs for personal space, we also all need contact, connection and closeness to other people. We tend to benefit from companionship, belonging and community. And on a more personal level, the warmth and intimacy afforded by our closest relationships can be deeply gratifying. While we don’t always think of it this way, the human capacity for connection is actually something of a gift, one that we can nurture and grow.

Purpose: Looking Beyond Yourself

Considerable philosophical thought and empirical research suggest that one critical component of living a meaningful life is being a part of something bigger than yourself. But this does not mean that you need to write the great American novel or solve world hunger. Some of us do end up making such significant contributions to society, but there are many other ways to give back. You can advocate for social justice, volunteer at your church, mosque or synagogue, raise a healthy and happy family, be there for a friend in a time of need. Seeking such opportunities not only benefits those around us, but builds our own sense of our personal value to the world.

Play: Just for the Fun of It

We rarely think of it this way, but play is actually a fundamental human activity. If you know someone who doesn’t know how to play, you may realize how important it is. Doing something just for enjoyment is a whole different class of experience from our usual task oriented, goal-directed mode of existence. Play can be pointless, timeless, silly, as well as competitive or just for the hell of it. Play also teaches important emotional and interpersonal lessons—about imagination, aggression, boundaries, teamwork—that are hard to come by or very different in other spheres of life. So allow yourself to get lost in play. It’s totally worth it.

Growth: Changing, Learning, and Learning from Change

Human beings tend to resist change, and often even fear what Buddhists sometimes refer to as “impermanence.” We all grow old, and none of us will be here forever. But perhaps aging is also a gift. As we grow older, we also evolve, adapt, expand our experience and perspective, but only if we’re willing to be open and learn from the process. Actually, people are capable of remarkable growth and change in all kinds of ways. We may reach a point where we can no longer run a marathon, or even stay up late enough to finish a good book, but we can grow socially and emotionally, and see our place in the universe with greater clarity, compassion and purpose.

Mindfulness: The Art of Being Present

Did you know that you can actually expand your awareness of the present moment? That you can be more attuned to your present experience without judgment, and without trying to fix it or change it? When we pursue happiness, we’re not in the present but trying to get somewhere else. The idea is that “happiness” is a better place to be, a better feeling to have. But when you can learn to appreciate the richness and nuance of whatever is present, the world becomes a more beautiful place, and you feel calmer and more at ease. Mindfulness is an ability we all have within us and skill that we can all practice and foster.

Wisdom: Being Able to See Life as It Is

Seeking wisdom probably sounds even more foolhardy than pursuing happiness. Wisdom seems rare and unattainable. But what if wisdom is not so much a state to be achieved—like happiness—but a way of looking at things? Seeing the world for what it is, with a sense of perspective and proportion. Seeing the greater truth behind the facts, understanding what’s truly important. Perhaps there is wisdom all around us—in stories, in history, in nature, in children—and we just have to learn to recognize it, and remain open to seeing it.

So, What’s the Point?

Happiness is a wonderful feeling, but one that’s both transient and difficult to manufacture. And perhaps it’s not what we should be striving for anyway. The qualities and experiences outlined above are not just feelings, but skills, mindsets, and ways of being in the world that we can actively cultivate.

And here’s the real kicker: As you develop such skills, you’ll discover rewards that are more beneficial than happiness. Rewards such as calmness, stability, and equanimity. The ability to be more at ease with yourself and more genuine with others. A sense of well-being and greater connection to the world around you. And then, ironically, you’ll probably feel a lot happier too.

References and further reading

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? [corrected] Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11(4), 807–815. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022010

Prinzing, M., Le Nguyen, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2023). Does shared positivity make life more meaningful? Perceived positivity resonance is uniquely associated with perceived meaning in life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 125(2), 345–366. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000418

Takai, S., Hasegawa, A., Shigematsu, J., & Yamamoto, T. (2023). Do people who highly value happiness tend to ruminate? Current psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1–13. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-04131-6