The Mistaken Priority of Happiness
Happiness is the wrong goal.
If you are living your life looking for happiness, you’ll feel disappointed with the results, and here’s why:
1) There are more tangible things to look for (often not discussed in those happiness books and speeches): laughter, material possessions, sex, intellectual growth, free time, and more. These are much better symbols of happiness, joy and accomplishment than happiness itself. When we experience them, happiness becomes graspable. Those are the popular happy moments.
2) It’s hard to feel it as a whole. What usually happens is that we evaluate our life and calculate an approximate level of happiness depending on our current situation on many variables, like our jobs, relationships, achievements, and more. We define happiness as being “happy enough so far” instead of seeking sensations that are easy to describe and transmit.
3) Happiness is as imprecise and appealing as the idea of “heaven.” I’m sure that there’s some historical connection between the concept of happiness and a heavenly after-life. On a side note: writers and speakers who make money selling the promise of happiness are the priests of the XXI century.
4) If you lived most of your life happy, but you were miserable the last year, then you died miserable. Having an impact on the world and leading an exemplary, ethical life without regrets is more important than being happy, because it cannot be taken away by time and its randomness.
Here’s Betsey Stevenson on the difference between happiness and fulfilment (h/t Stephen Dodson):
There is probably more to life than even life satisfaction. I know that sounds almost oxymoronic, but perhaps we’re missing a sense of greater purpose or fulfilment. The example I give to demonstrate the limits of happiness data is that people with children are less happy than equivalent people without children. The only explanation that I can think of is that parents are more stressed and harried so when they’re asked about happiness or life satisfaction, they’re not quite as joyous or satisfied as people without kids. But it’s hard for me to imagine that they’re all making a mistake by having children.
To sum it up, there are bigger things in life.
Ben once asked me:
If you could be plugged to a machine that made you feel happy all the time… would you do it?
After thinking hard about it, I realized that I would not.
For me, and I suspect for more people as well, a happy life is an uncomfortable life. In other words, predictability and lack of hardships means an unfulfilled and unhappy life (although this may change in the future since my life philosophy involves the benefits of a healthy body and mind). By overcoming discomfort, I grow as a person and find meaning to life.
Increasing my wisdom and passing it on to future generations is a more important goal for me than happiness. Each person may have different life objectives and value hierarchies, but I’m confident than most people don’t have happiness at the top, even if they say they do when they are hurried for an answer.
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