Your idea of happiness is flawed

This is an article re-post written by Kimmy Dee originally published back in August of 2011. It may just hit you like a ton of bricks.

If you’re looking for an answer to “How can I be happy?” then the response from the experts is, “You’re asking the wrong question.” The better question is why our idea of happiness is so screwed up that most of us wouldn’t recognize the real thing if we saw it. Well …

#5. What We’re Calling Happiness is a Recent Invention

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This should blow your mind: The entire concept that you can become happy via some action you can take is a relatively recent invention. And the concept that a person should be happy, and that anything else is the result of some unusual breakdown in the system, is extremely recent.

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“I’d define happiness as less than four types of lice on my body.”

Now, before everyone digs out their old goth clothes and screams, “Aha! We told you that the world was just an endless black ocean of suffering!” that’s actually the opposite of the point we’re making. It appears that the reason so many people profess to be miserable is specifically because they think they’re missing out on some magical emotion that “happy” people feel all the time. They’re tormenting themselves over the loss of something that nobody actually has, because that thing doesn’t even have a definition.

See, the thing is that humans have never actually settled on what “happiness” is. A historian named Darrin McMahon exhaustively studied how happiness has been viewed over the last few thousand years and found that it was constantly changing.

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“I’d say I define happiness as less than three types of lice on my body.”

Go back to ancient Greece and it’s very simple: Happiness = Luck. Either the gods dribbled their joy juice on you or didn’t; either way, there was nothing you could do about it. And that was it, end of conversation. It was nothing to get upset about. In fact, in every European language, the root of the word for happiness is some older word that meant “luck.” Ours comes from the old Norse and Old English word “hap”, and hap simply means “luck.”

Flash forward to Aristotle’s day, 335-ish B.C. Philosophers of the time considered happiness to be synonymous with virtue. In other words, do good to feel good. If you didn’t feel good, it meant you weren’t being virtuous enough. Now, we don’t want to come off as cynical here, but it almost sounds like this was when they started using this elusive idea of happiness as a motivational tool. Happiness is the carrot on the stick that makes you do all of the things that keep society running smoothly.

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“All of this will be worth it, once I’m able afford that crack habit I’ve been longing for.”

After that, you get into medieval times when early Christians saw happiness as something a soul was to be rewarded with in heaven, and not something attainable in the mortal world. Then the Renaissance came along and brought us the concept of pleasure equaling happiness. Keep in mind, those two ideas weren’t always connected — the old-school thinkers described happiness as the overall state of somebody who had lived their life well, completely separating it from that feeling you get when you eat a warm cookie or play with a puppy.

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“I’m deeply, spiritually satisfied about the number of puppies I’ve played with.”

But the new definition of happiness seemed to be “you feel like you’re playing with a puppy, all the time.” Then the Enlightenment declared that everyone had a right to be happy, and by the time the American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the “pursuit of happiness” was declared an inalienable right, endowed by the creator. That’s a damned 180-degree turn from what the ancient Greeks thought. And if we’re defining happiness as 24/7 puppy time, then it doesn’t work.

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“… with liberty and puppies for all.”

Not according to science, anyway. Because …

#4. You Physically Can’t Feel Happiness for Very Long

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Quick: What’s the final line of every fairy tale you know? “And they all lived …”

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Yes, everybody realizes life is not a fairy tale, or a Hollywood movie (where 99 percent of the time, the final shot implies, “And they lived happily ever after”). We say we realize that, anyway. Yet, people still talk about happiness like there is some finish line. Once you cross it, you’ll have “achieved happiness.”

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“The first 10 to not hate their lives win a free hat!”

Don’t take our word for it — go to and search for the words “achieve happiness” and check out how many self-help books promise they’ll get you to that destination:

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Yes, the No. 1 result is by Russell Simmons.

Well, science says it’s not possible.

As it turns out, the human brain is equipped with “hedonic set points” which not only establish where our base mood is (optimistic, pessimistic or indifferent); but also adapts rather quickly to our surroundings and returns to our base frame of mind. Basically, we all have a built-in buzzkill app.

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“Laugh all you want. That romantic comedy won’t halt your inevitable demise.”

In 1978, a research group studied lottery winners, regular assholes and those who had suffered injuries rendering them paraplegic or quadriplegic. All groups reported a similar number of good days versus bad days, with no clear victor in the happiness race.

On the bright side, these studies show that people adapt better than they think they would to devastating situations. The triumph of the human spirit, etc. But on the flip side, if you’re completely miserable now, achieving your goals will probably only result in a slight surge on the happiness meter and then you’ll be right back to your crotchety old self.

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“This Nobel Prize is lovely, but right now, I’m much more interested in learning the banjo.”

Some psychologists refer to this trend as the “hedonic treadmill,” saying that we experience only a brief moment of fleeting happiness when we achieve a goal before our minds look forward to the next conquest.

And … look at that. There’s the carrot and the stick again. Only instead of coming in the form of some philosopher or book telling you if you do the following, you will be happy in the future, it’s your own brain. It’s triggering a built-in mechanism to keep you from getting complacent. Either way, the promise of happiness just over the next hill turns out to be a tool to keep you climbing hills.

#3. Money Can Buy Happiness. .. Sort of

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It’s no shock that personal satisfaction goes up with income, though not to the degree that some people think. There is no question that the anxiety that comes with knowing somebody is going to repossess your house at any moment is hard as hell on your happiness levels.

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But once you have no home at all? Pure bliss.

But when you do have some above-poverty level of income, how do you spend the money? When it comes time to splurge on something fun, some of you focus on new possessions (a TV, a video game console, a family of multiracial blow-up dolls) while others are more likely to buy experiences (a massage, dinner at a fancy restaurant, a concert, a “massage”).

Well, you don’t have to look very hard to find a study saying that materialism has a devastating toll on the happiness fund as well as the bank account. While we have an entire economic system and popular culture built to cater to it, science says that endless pursuit of stuff leads to decreased life satisfaction, decreased happiness, depression, paranoia and narcissism. Holy shit!

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That’s a hollow smile on his face.

The obvious problem is that possessions are like a physical manifestation of the hedonistic treadmill we just discussed — your fancy new car accumulates scratches and door dings and burrito sauce stains on the seats. It degrades right in front of your eyes. The new computer gets slower every day you own it. And, before long, somebody you know will buy a nicer one that makes yours look like a sad, computer-shaped turd and then all of your new-gadget happiness is released into the atmosphere in a black cloud of euphoria emissions.

You get better results, the experts say, from spending money on experiences — a concert, a vacation, a clothing-optional cruise. If those events go well, they tend to get better in your memory as time goes on.

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“In a few years, we won’t even remember how much puking we did this week.”

But get this — when doing a study of vacationers, the happiest people were the ones in the weeks leading up to a vacation. It was all about anticipation. Again, it looks like our brain rewards us more for working toward a goal than for actually arriving there. The study actually suggests taking more frequent, shorter vacations. You know, so you can spend more time anticipating them.

Wait, didn’t we say that in medieval times their whole thing was just telling people they’d be happy after they died? So they’d spend their whole lives in that anticipation mode? We’re not experts. Just throwing that out there.

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“Just a couple more decades of backbreaking labor and then cash-out!”

#2. Freedom of Choice Doesn’t Always Make You Happier

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If you’re reading this, you probably live in some kind of a free society. And we’re guessing that you place pretty high value on freedom, and that approximately zero of you stare out the window and long to move to North Korea. But freedom to choose everything you do comes at a price.

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“But which brand of hazelnut is the hazelnuttiest?”

For instance, there are two kinds of people: those old enough to remember a world without the Internet, and those who are not. If you were born in the 1970s, you probably remember a household, not only without a computer, but with a television that had three channels. And UHF. Total. And no video games.

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Thank goodness we had Vietnam to keep us occupied.

Since then, the entertainment choices have gone up infinitely. We have our food choices, and toothpaste choices, and career choices. Don’t scoff at that last one (“Ha, I’d love to have even one career!”) since a lot of your job anxiety comes from the fact that there are so many choices that it isn’t at all obvious which one is right for you. Once upon a time, you knew what you were going to do when you grew up: You were going to work on the goddamn farm, just like everybody else. Now, you spend the last year of high school knowing that of the thousands of possible careers, you will probably suck at all but one or two. And the results if you pick wrong can be devastating.

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“If only I’d been a fry cook.”

That everyday anxiety over making the wrong choice is why having a vast selection of choices tends to make people less happy in general.

You have that agonizing selection process, repeated over and over again with decisions big and small (and some of you reading this have worried yourself sick over whether to go with LCD or plasma — don’t say you haven’t) which not only leads to anxiety, but decreased satisfaction even when we do chose correctly. After all, once you make the decision and get locked in, you never stop thinking “What if.”

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“I was this close to a spot on the cast of Mad TV, but I threw it all away for politics.”

Hell, regret is the whole basis of the “midlife crisis” people go through in their 40s and 50s. “What if I’d chosen some other career? Or some other wife? Or chosen to spend more time with my kids instead of working?” It’s the fact that there is not enough time left to redo any of those decisions that triggers the “crisis.”

And all of it comes back to the elusive nature of happiness. You picked X because you thought it would make you happy, but you’re not happy, so you probably should have picked Y instead. Then you would have been happy, dammit. Which means the pressure is really on when you make this next decision. Because happiness is right over that next hill, and you’d better pick the right way to get over it. Don’t fuck this up! Everything rides on this!

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But don’t get stressed out! Shithead!

Maybe that explains what is going to be the weirdest statistic you’ll hear all month: The countries and states with the highest happiness levels also have the highest suicide rates. People in New York state rank 45th in reported life satisfaction. They also have the lowest suicide rates. Hawaii unsurprisingly has the second-highest life satisfaction, it being an island paradise and all. But it also ranks in the top five in suicides.

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Also, it looks kind of like a noose from above.

The answer, researchers guess, is that the people reporting happiness are not in fact the same people who are committing suicides. No, they think the source of the depressed people’s despair is being around all of these happy people. Think about how that magnifies all of your mistakes, and highlights what you missed out on.

#1. Treating Happiness as a Goal is Bad News

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Let’s go back a couple of thousand years, back to the era when happiness was either all about luck, or the result of living a virtuous life. In both of those schools of thought, it sounds like the message is, “Don’t even bother trying to be happy, because these are ancient times, we all live in filth and that’s just the way it is.” But according to the experts, they may have been onto something. Just in a roundabout way.

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“Does anyone else feel oddly fulfilled?”

A study published by Perspectives on Psychological Science found that participants, when asked to read and act out steps in a self-help article or to watch an upbeat film, usually concentrated too hard on trying to improve their mood and therefore ended up feeling cheated and more downtrodden.

The study’s co-author and a member of the psychology department faculty at Yale University, June Gruber, said: “When you’re doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness.”

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Not unlike the Smurf movie.

So what does jolly Old June suggest?

“… the best way to increase your happiness is to stop worrying about being happy and instead divert your energy to nurturing the social bonds you have with other people … If there’s one thing you’re going to focus on, focus on that. Let all the rest come as it will.”

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Also there are other alternatives. Giant handfuls of them.

The very act of trying to achieve happiness made people unhappy because of the anxiety they felt when they failed. They were happier when they weren’t trying. You know, like if somebody had told them it was out of their hands, or that they should focus on doing good things and declare the result to be “happiness,” regardless of what it looked like.

And also, they should avoid reading articles about happiness at all costs.

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2 Responses to “Your idea of happiness is flawed”

  1. I liked this one, appeals to the social scientist in me.

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