There’s More to Life Than Happiness – But Wanting It is not Stupid or Selfish
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The year is 2150. By some miracle, you’re still alive. The Happiness Machine has finally been invented.
At a cost of just $100, you can get one for yourself. It’s like a non-stop dose of heroine, ecstasy and marijuana combined, but without any of the negative side-effects – no brain damage, no poisoning, no psychological impairment. Best of all, there’s no dependence.
The Happiness Machine feels just as good on day 200 as it did on day 1, inducing a permanent state of euphoria. The only drawback is that once you’ve plugged yourself in, there’s no going back – the euphoria is permanent.
Would you use it?
There’s a point in my life when I might have answered yes. I’ve spent many of the past 10 years of my life not happy – the thought of the few and far between moments of happiness becoming permanent would have been alluring. But even when depressed, I don’t think I would have used the Happiness Machine.
Because there’s more to life than happiness.
There’s making a difference, accomplishing things, leaving a legacy, having a family.
That was the core message of a recent, popular article by the Atlantic: There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.
I half-way agree – the pursuit of more happiness is only one of many important life goals.
But this article really pissed me off.
Scattered throughout the article are pieces of poisonous, toxic waste. They read like harmless ideas, but represent gross misrepresentations.
Myth 1: Happiness is insignificant.
If that’s what you think, this blog isn’t for you. My view is that happiness is one of a half-dozen pillars which supports a flourishing life – each deserving attention. Indeed, happiness triggers the broaden-and-build response, which encourages the pursuit of meaning.
Myth 2: The Pursuit of Happiness is Hedonism.
Let’s stop and ask for a second, what exactly are we talking about when we mention happiness?
Entire textbooks have been written trying to define it – for today at least, I won’t try. So for today, let’s keep it simple – happiness is, on balance, about feeling good.
There’s more to it – details that I’m ignoring. But for now, that definition is enough.
That’s also the definition most of us think of when we think of happiness. Which makes it clear why many associate the pursuit of happiness with hedonism – define happiness as feeling good, and oh look at that – those hedonistic hipsters out there that are doing drugs and having random sex are actually pursuing happiness.
Except they’re not.
[Hedonism] was related to recent negative events, lack of perceived control, and maladaptive coping dimensions, including anger, withdrawal, and helplessness. In contrast, future orientation was generally related to higher levels of adaptive outcomes, such as perceived control and positive well-being.1
Hedonism isn’t happiness. It’s short-sighted.2 One reason the hippie movement of the 60s failed is that things stopped being fun once people started going hungry.
Yes, too much future focus is a bad thing – you’ve got to stop and have fun every now and again. But hedonism is worse – you’ll end up addicted to drugs, stuck with a half-dozen STDs, unemployed, divorced, or homeless.
The pursuit of happiness requires a balance of both – appreciating the present moment, but also working enough to ensure a successful future.
Myth 3. The Pursuit of Happiness is Selfish.
This myth comes from associating the pursuit of happiness with hedonism, which, as I said above, is wrong. It might have been true in the 60s. Not anymore.
But even if it was still true, this myth would still be wrong. Hedonists aren’t selfish. They’re short-sighted. That’s a big difference.
The pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.”
Whoever this “taker” fellow, he gives selfish people a bad name.
This is my definition of selfish: acting in a way that furthers your interests.
By that definition, I consider myself among the top-tier of selfishness – I’m so good at acting in a way that furthers my own interests that most others consider me kind and caring.
No. I’m not saying I’m a psychopath.
I’m saying that selfish people, in the traditional sense of the word, are not selfish at all. They’re stuck in the past – when resources were scarce and selfishness kept people alive.
In the past, being selfish meant taking rather than giving. In the modern world, being selfish means giving rather than taking.
Remember, being selfish means acting in a way that furthers your interests. One of my key interests is being as happy as possible. That’s why I volunteer several hours a week, try to spend more on others than myself, and quit my consulting job in order to work full time trying to make the world a happier place.
Not because I’m selfless or altruistic. Make that claim, and you’d be 100% wrong. It’s because I’m selfish.
The major world religions nailed it hundreds of years ago. Now modern science confirms it:
- The loving are happier than the hateful.3,4,5,13
- The grateful are happier than the entitled.5,6,7,8,9,10,11
- The compassionate are happier than the indifferent.12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20
Look. I understand. You might be rolling your eyes or calling me an idealistic softie.
I’m not talking about becoming a pushover or self-sacrificer.
I’m talking about intelligently pursuing your goals. Can I assume that one of your goals is to get happier? If so:
Which of those six behaviors looks anything like traditional selfish behavior? None – to be intelligently selfish is to be a “giver”, not a “taker”.
In case you’re still skeptical, there’s a lot more evidence that points to the conclusion that selfish people are less happy.
1 – The across the board finding from one series of studies was that the selfish were almost always less happy. – In this group of 4 studies by Northwestern University, situational cues which triggered a materialistic mind-set (a close cousin of selfishness) led participants to feel more negative emotion.21
3 – Ever hear of random acts of kindness? Of how they make people happy? It’s true. Do random acts of selfishness make people happy? Not usually.
4 – From psychologist Richard Eckersley,
Western culture’s… aim of self-interest… conflicts with and undermines pursuits essential to individual and collective wellbeing.22,23
Myth 4: The Pursuit of Happiness is Stupid
It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.
True or false?
Actually, mostly true. The pursuit of happiness is tricky, with dead-ends, pitfalls, and trap doors along the way.
Who’s happier – the American who cares a lot about happiness, or the American who cares more about his community?
It’s the American who cares more about his community.25
The sad truth is that most Americans want to be happier. And in wanting to be happier, many of them end up worse for it. They might spend more time working in order to increase their salary, and desire greatness and start comparing themselves to the best of their community.
That’s dangerous – those with a higher salary are slightly happier, but working long hours (the “puritan ideal”) increases divorce risk, hurts health, increases stress, and more.26,27 Those who compare themselves to the highest of standards report lower well-being.25
In order to be happier, a reader of this blog might spend more time with their family or work to better themselves, while always cultivating gratitude for what they already have.
No question, that leads to increased happiness. But that’s not what most people think of first when they think, “I want to be happy, what should I do?”
So yes, the pursuit of happiness is correlated with reduced well-being, but that’s because most people have been duped.
One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities.
The pursuit of happiness is neither stupid or selfish, but only when done right, free of the toxic waste that’s accumulated in our culture over the past few decades.
Happiness is in the balance – taking enough to keep your needs met, but not so much that you deny yourself the pleasure of kindness; working enough to afford a solid home, but not so much that your partner goes cold in the bedroom.
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3. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
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