The Futile Pursuit of Happiness

In a past post, I described my shifting priorities and schemata related to happiness.  As I continue to read up on the science of happiness, one finding stands out.

The active pursuit of happiness could actually make us less happy.

How could this be?  It is counter-intuitive to nearly any other goal-achievement system.  If one wants to be rich, one can work step-by-step to earn, save, and grow their money.  If one wants to lose weight, one can eat less and exercise more. These goals have well-documented, evidence-based processes that one can follow towards their achievement.

However, how does one achieve the goal to be happier?

In four years, my mind has written and rewritten its intuitions on what produces happiness.  To this day, my assumptions about happiness remain in motion. I do not feel alone in this struggle.  While goals of weight loss or money management have basic principles, tangible metrics, and evidential bodies of support for effective practices, improving happiness still largely requires guesswork.

Maybe I should take time off of work.

Maybe I should find more fulfilling work.

Maybe I should spend more time with my family.

Maybe I should spend more time alone.

It’s all a morass of “maybes”.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert backs up my anecdotal evidence – people are surprisingly poor predictors of both the causes and the duration of their happiness.  For example, one study tracked lottery winners and recent amputees.  One might intuit a marked increase in the happiness of lottery winners and a debilitating decline in the happiness of amputees.  While this may have been true in the short run, both groups’ happiness returned to pre-event baselines of satisfaction in the course of a year.  Many lottery winners even reported lower happiness than they experienced prior to their surprise windfalls.  

In other words, both good fortune and misfortune eventually lose salience.  Each event simply integrates into our life narrative and produces a new normal.

This makes sense in hindsight.  We are very adaptive creatures. I feel this firsthand living abroad.  It took mere months for the new-land novelty to yield to the daily routine.  Oftentimes I forget that I live in a foreign country altogether. I just wake up, work out, go to work, study online classes, go to sleep, and repeat.

Another aspect that sets happiness apart from more tangible objectives is quantifiability.  How do we measure happiness? Is it the number of positive experiences we have? Is it general feelings of contentedness?  Is it the absence of negative emotions? A quantitative measurement has yet to emerge from the annals of science. If a goal is not measurable, then how can we determine its achievement?  We can’t.

Why else could prioritizing happiness as a goal backfire into greater dissatisfaction?  For one, setting a “happiness goal” creates inherent expectations.

If we choose to take a trip to Mexico because we believe it will make us happier, we burden ourselves with undue pressure.

“This trip is expensive, it better be worth it.”

“I’m missing work for this.  I better enjoy myself.”

“That slice of cake will go right to my hips.  It better be delicious.”

When these external activities only bring us a modicum of pleasure and underwhelming returns in happiness (which is nearly inevitable when expectations induce stress), disappointment becomes a likely outcome.

“Why did I not enjoy myself more on that trip?  Leisure experience is supposed to make me happy.  This experience did not. Something must be wrong with me.”

In a way, there is something wrong.  Happiness cannot be sought.  It must be chosen.  We can surround ourselves with total security, boundless comforts and conveniences, and multitudes of people who care about us.  However, if we do not take a conscious step toward appreciating what we have, then it is all for naught. Gratitude is an essential element of happiness that many of us (myself included) are susceptible to neglect.

Perhaps happiness goals are self-defeating because they imply an inconvenient truth – we are unhappy.

Material possessions, trips, nights out on the town often do little to soothe our pangs because none of those things attack the root causes of unhappiness.  Those causes are many:

“I am lonely.”

“My work is unfulfilling.”

“I am not living up to my potential.”

“I am not [insert desirable adjective] enough.”

What do these problems have in common?  They put a sharp focus on what we lack. Rather than pushing us towards gratitude, these thoughts reinforce spiritual poverty.

So what do we do? If we cannot make happiness a goal, do we give up?  Are we sentenced to life in misery without parole?


Action is an antidote.  We need to think less and act more.  It is easy to congest our emotional sinuses with a gluttony of thought.  In other words, we can spend too much time thinking about happiness instead of living happily.

Spend time with people you care about.  Do things you find enjoyable.  Get out of your head and help somebody else. 

Do not do it with the goal of being happier.  Rather, focus on appreciating the moments. Stay present.  Stay grateful.  Happiness is one breath away should we slow down enough to catch it.

Photo Corner


My school had CPR training last week.  Korea’s love affair with cartoons and cuteness even applies to heart health.


Namak Lake has some massive carp.  They all crowded the dock when I approached.  I have a suspicion that people feed them often.


We saved so many dummies’ lives that day.


I showed Sugar the view from Oryong Mountain.  That’s Namak below us.  The Yongsan River lies beyond.


I promised my students I would let them present their character description in the next class.  I forgot.  In return, I drew them a terrifying picture.  His name is Milky.  He delivers milk.  He is happy.

4 thoughts on “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness

  1. If you don’t share your insights to a larger audience, so many people will be missing out. You truly have something amazing to say. Nice work.


  2. Ian, I agree that thinking about happiness to much detracts from actually having happiness. I find myself caught in this trap all the time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject and I hope you’re out there living happily instead of just thinking about it! 🙂


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