You’re Not Meant to Be Happy … and That’s a Good Thing
Happiness is temporary but the pursuit of our values provides long-lasting benefits.
Happiness is a myth — at least if you look at it the way most people do.
Most people see happiness as something they can have under certain conditions, for example:
- Having lots of friends
- Living in a beautiful place
- Getting recognized for accomplishments
Whatever they’re chasing, they’re constantly running on a script that goes, “If only I had _____, then I could be happy.”
Almost everyone follows this pattern, even though we should know better.
After all, we know money can’t buy happiness. We’ve seen how celebrities, seemingly on top of the world, fall victim to all kinds of problems and seem anything but happy. We’ve also been told, over and over again, that people are often unhappy, no matter how good their circumstances are.
Yet, we keep acting like our dissatisfaction would vanish if only.
If only we had the right spouse, the right house, the right friends, the right job, and the right government, then we’d be satisfied and happy.
The Truth About Happiness
Here’s the truth: none of those things can make you happy.
Your government can’t make you happy.
Your partner can’t make you happy.
Your friends can’t make you happy.
These things can only remove sources of unhappiness.
For example, loneliness is a source of unhappiness. If you’re lonely, the pain of loneliness will motivate you to alleviate it. You’ll look for friends, go on dates, and do other things to connect with people.
Eventually, you’ll no longer be lonely. But then, you’ll see other problems.
Your friends gossip about you. Your partner snores. Your co-workers bore you to tears. Since people aren’t perfect, your relationships will alleviate loneliness, but they won’t make life perfect. Boredom, sleep deprivation, and gossip will become new sources of unhappiness in your life.
Hunger is another example. If you’re hungry, you’ll be motivated to alleviate that pain, and maybe the government helps you with that. You get food stamps, and voila! — you’re not hungry anymore. The government has removed a source of unhappiness. But that doesn’t mean you’re happy. Once hunger is gone, new sources of unhappiness will crop up instead.
It’s an endless loop psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill.”
You identify a source of unhappiness, like loneliness or hunger. You find a way to remove that source of unhappiness. Then, the next source of unhappiness takes its place.
“Government cannot bring happiness, but it can eliminate the sources of unhappiness.”
— Mogens Lykketoft, former speaker of the Parliament in Denmark (the world’s happiest country).
This is why people who “have everything” in terms of material possessions are often still not satisfied. To someone who’s struggling to get food or shelter, the worries of more fortunate people seem trivial — and often, they are trivial. But that doesn’t change the fact that perfectly fortunate people are still able to find sources of unhappiness.
Constant happiness isn’t simply elusive; it’s a myth. Human beings aren’t evolved to exist in a state of unchanging happiness.
No matter how rich, healthy, successful, or popular you are, there’s always disquietude. There will always be sources of wanting in your life, crowding into the vacuum left by things you once wanted and now have.
Endlessly wanting more is what kept our species hunting, creating, inventing and improving our lot in life.
But this perpetual dissatisfaction can serve us rather than us serving it.
The Pursuit of Values
Most people don’t choose what makes them unhappy. They let the world tell them what to be unhappy about.
For example, they let advertisers tell them to be unhappy because they don’t have the latest must-have item. They let ESPN tell them to be unhappy because their team lost the game. They let Twitter tell them to be unhappy because… it’s Twitter. Once people have what they need to get by, they can fall into the trap of being consumed by meaningless things that still make them unhappy.
You can make a different choice. Instead of letting the world tell you what matters, you can decide for yourself.
What’s worth caring about? What’s truly worth striving to improve?
Knowing the answers to these questions allows you to decide how to meaningfully spend your time.
A great way to start is by defining your values: the attributes of the person you aspire to be.
When you know who you want to become as defined by your values, you can take concrete steps forward.
For example, if you aspire to be a well-read person, you can set aside time on your calendar every week and commit to reading during that time.
If you aspire to be a caring friend, you can make a similar commitment to connecting with the people you care about. In this way, you can design your own behavior around what matters most to you.
When you choose to fill your time with the pursuit of your values, you’ll trade in the trivial and artificial temporary sources of fleeting good feelings for longer-lasting life satisfaction.
You won’t be unalterably happy of course — because humans aren’t wired to be. But at the end of the day, you will have deliberately spent your time and your life on your terms, and that’s something worth celebrating every minute of every day.
Nir Eyal is a former Lecturer at Stanford and is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Indistractable won numerous honors and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Amazon.