How to Gain Happiness Without Pursuing It

Photo by Megan Wycklendt
Photo by Megan Wycklendt
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The Challenge: We try to too hard to make ourselves happy.
The Science: Research shows that the result – ironically – is that we become less happy.
The Solution: Instead of chasing happiness, learn to be present.

Happiness Fever – or the Pursuit of Happiness

Having lived previously in Paris and San Diego among other places, Cynthia Andros decided that it was time to settle. She took out a map and decided to calculate where she would be happiest. In Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss, she recounts the criteria she had for the optimal place to live: Four seasons but a temperate environment and enough humidity. Rich cultural life, arts scene and the choice of food options were important, but also closeness to nature, preferably mountains. In the end she chose Asheville in North Carolina, a small but cultural city surrounded by mountains and nature. Asheville is the place that she believes to be optimal for her happiness.

But when Eric Weiner asks Cynthia if Asheville is home, she hesitates. All the criteria were not fulfilled: Asheville is close to mountains and nature, but not sea. And there are no major airports nearby. She has lived in Asheville for three years, but it is merely a “home for now”.

The same thing happens when Eric interviews another Asheville resident, Laurey Masterton. She has lived there for twenty years, owns a restaurant and knows everybody worth knowing in the city. But when asked whether Asheville is her home, there is again the slight hesitation: “I’ve been here for twenty years, so I guess this is home.”

Both Cynthia and Laurey are victims of happiness fever, our modern obsession with happiness. They are so eager to optimize their happiness that they are unable to feel at home anywhere. Something better can always be found behind the next mountain, so they are unable to be completely satisfied with anything. Happiness fever makes us unable to really commit, and can ruin our ability to enjoy our lives, our relationships, and our career. In a final attempt to find something Laurey is really committed to, Eric asks where she wants to die: “In Vermont, where I grew up.”

“That is the problem with hedonic floaters like Cynthia and with many of us Americans and our perpetual pursuit of happiness. We may be fairly happy now, but there’s always tomorrow and the prospect of a happier place, a happier life. So all options are left on the table. We never fully commit. That is, I think, a dangerous thing. We can’t love a place, or a person, if we always have one foot out the door.” – Eric Weiner

The Result of Happiness Fever

Happiness fever can be fatal for our ability to enjoy life. We try to optimize our lives so hard that we are unable to stop and enjoy the moment. Research has shown that people who are most committed to improving their own happiness are the ones who are least able to enjoy life. When they encounter something joyful, they experience some joy, as does everybody else. But at the same time the happiness optimizers are disappointed with their feelings. They would have wanted to enjoy the event even more. In their eagerness to derive the maximum happiness out of every life circumstance, they actually lose their ability to enjoy life as it is.

Pursuing happiness backfires. As I noted in my previous post, people who are most obsessed with making themselves happy end up less happy, lonelier and less capable of handling life’s inevitable setbacks. What Cynthia, Laurey and everyone captured by the happiness fever would need to learn is accepting life as it is, and themselves as they are.

The Best Kept Secret to Real Happiness

Some people are maximizers and others are satisficers. Maximizers are the one’s who try to optimize their lives in order to derive the maximum amount of happiness out of it. Satisficers also have their criteria of what is acceptable. But at some point they decide that something is “good enough” and are satisfied with it. Instead of having one foot in the next city, they are able to settle and call a place their home. Instead of being always on the lookout for an even better partner, they are able to fully commit to their present spouse and be happy to share their lives with them. This is why research shows that it is actually satisficers, not maximizers that are happier in life. And this holds true especially in today’s world that is full of choices.

Renowned Zen philosopher, Alan W. Watts, one’s compared life to music. We Westerners try to optimize our lives as if there were some clear goal at the end: Success or optimal happiness. We believe that the point of life is to reach that goal as fast as we can. However, if you think of a music analogy, the aim of music is not get to get to its end as fast as you can. The best musicians are not the one’s who play the song the fastest. The whole point of music is the music itself. Music happens here and now. The question is, are you present and listen to it or do you rush past it?

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Frank Martela
Frank Martela, PhD, is enthusiastic about exploring the ultimate factors of human motivation. His main research topics include willpower, intrinsic motivation, and meaning in life. He experiments with his own willpower through barefoot running – last year he ran his first two barefoot marathons. As regards meaning in life, he finds it by making himself meaningful for other people as a researcher, a spouse and a father. Frank has wide experience in lecturing about motivation and willpower for both academic and general audiences. His latest book, Willpower: The Owner’s Manual, distills the scientific knowledge about willpower into twelve easy and practical tools.
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