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

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life.

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.”

-The Atlantic


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:

to be selfish is to be kind

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.

-Victor Frankl

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.

-Richard Eckersley

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.

If you agree, please share this post with your friends using the buttons to your left.


1. Zimbardo, Philip; Boyd, John (2008-08-05). The Time Paradox. Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.2. Willis, T. A., Sandy, J. M., and Yaeger, A. M. (2001). “Time Perspective and Early-onset Substance Abuse: A Model based on Stress-coping Theory.” Psychology of Addictive Behavior 15, 118– 125.3. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.4. Gove, W. R., Hughes, M., & Style, C. B. (1983). Does marriage have positive effects on the psychological well-being of the individual?. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 122-131.5. Proctor, C., Maltby, J., & Linley, P. P. (2011). Strengths Use as a Predictor of Well-Being and Health-Related Quality of Life. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 12(1), 153-169. doi:10.1007/s10902-009-9181-26. Positive Psychology Progress (2005, Seligman, M. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C.)7. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life8. Gratitude Uniquely Predicts Satisfaction with Life: Incremental Validity Above the Domains and Facets of the Five Factor Model9. The Role of Gratitude in The Development of Social Support, Stress, and Depression: Two Longitudinal Studies10. Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know11. The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography12. Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditationincreases social connectedness. Emotion, 8, 720–724.13. Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.14. Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.15. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.16. Neely, M. E., Schallert, D. L., Mohammed, S. S., Roberts, R. M., Chen, Y. (2009). Self-kindness when facing stress: The role of self-compassion, goal regulation, and support in college students’ well-being. Motivation and Emotion, 33, 88-97.17. Cosley, B. J., McCoy, S. K., Saslow, L. R., & Epel, E. S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 816-823. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.04.00818. Pace, T. W., Negi, L., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., & … Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87-98. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.01110. Van Dam, N. T., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 25(1), 123-130. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.08.01119. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.20. Hooria Jazaieri, Geshe Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, Erika L. Rosenberg, Joel Finkelstein, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Margaret Cullen, James Doty, James Gross, Philippe Goldin (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. Journal of Happiness Studies,doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z21. Bauer, M. A., Wilkie, J. E., Kim, J. K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2012). Cuing Consumerism Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being. Psychological science, 23(5), 517-523.22. Kasser T, Cohn S, Kanner AD, Ryan RM. Some costs of American corporatecapitalism: A psychological exploration of values and goal conflicts. Psychol Inq2007;18(1):1-22.23. *Eckersley R. 2009.The health and well-being of young Australians: Patterns, trends, explanations and responses. In DL Bennett, SJ Towns, EL Elliott, J Merrick (Eds). Challenges in Adolescent Health: An Australian Perspective. Nova Science, New York, pp. 3-19.24. Schooler, J. W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). The pursuit and assessment of happiness can be self-defeating. The psychology of economic decisions, 1, 41-70.25. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion26. Johnson, J. H. (2004). Do long work hours contribute to divorce?. Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, 4(1).27. Sparks, K., Cooper, C., Fried, Y., & Shirom, A. (2011). The effects of hours of work on health: A meta‐analytic review. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 70(4), 391-408.happy hedonism | what is hedonism | are hedonists happy

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23 thoughts on “There’s More to Life Than Happiness – But Wanting It is not Stupid or Selfish”

  1. I’m supposed to excuse the language when you write, “But this article really pissed me off”? Geez man, you won’t be able to handle the rapid fire cursing I’m doing in a post on Value of Simple next month. I think we got the point here without the expletives though.

    By the way, I freakin’ love the statement, “to be intelligently selfish is to be a ‘giver’, not a ‘taker’. I put it in a place of honor in my “Sayings” spreadsheet of the favorite words I come across in life. That one’s definitely getting referenced in the future (to make you look good and to make me seem smart by association).

    • I can handle all sorts of dirty language. I just don’t like the idea of cursing off to faceless readers I’ve never met. But perhaps I should have published the original post, rant and all. Those seem to be popular.

      Thanks Joel, I feel honored 🙂 I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’ve got a spreadsheet for that, considering you’ve got a spreadsheet for everything. That quote is a bit of a reaction to my grandfather (I’m staying at his house in India, atm), who spent 10 minutes yelling at me for tipping 33% at a restaurant (the meal was $3, I tipped $1). The usual tip is 0% – he said I was wasting money. He didn’t get it when I said I was buying happiness.

  2. You share many interesting thoughts here. I like your take on the pursuit of happiness being stupid. I have never really thought about it that way, but it makes sense. The times I am the happiest I’m not really pursuing happiness, rather I’m just doing things that I enjoy. Happiness is more of a byproduct.

    • Thanks Eric. I agree, but I’m obsessive about figuring out what it is that I actually enjoy.

      You’d think otherwise, but desire is a really bad proxy for how much enjoyment something will bring (e.g. we desire the accumulation of wealth, when spending time with family would make us happier). Because of that unfortunate fact, it’s actually really difficult to know what exactly we enjoy and in what specific combinations. So my on-going life project is to design my best day, with the assumption that if I can truly enjoy what I do each day, I’ll have a happy life.

  3. Gratitude and sharing combined with the view outward toward your loved ones and mankind is always fulfilling when compared to the need for ‘achievement’ and reaching ‘that’ goal. As there will always be milestone you must chase after and in this line of thinking you are never satisfied.
    What a proudly researched article showing the basis of the lore of happiness. Thank you for your efforts and success of grounding it in firmly established science.

    • That’s actually one of the things I’ve been debating with myself. There’s a growing number of folks in the positive psychology community who argue that achievement is something that is pursued for its own sake (much like happiness, which is an end-goal itself), and because it’s pursued for its own sake, is one of the components of a flourishing life.

      I completely agree that looking at accomplishment as a pathway to happiness is a mistake, for exactly the reason you mention. But perhaps accomplishment is desirable in and of itself. But if so, in what balance compared to the other pillars of a good life (e.g. happiness, meaning)?

      If only the human utility function was less opaque (you can’t ask someone what they want and expect an accurate answer; you’ve got to indirectly observe them). Thanks for getting my philosophy juices flowing 🙂

  4. I’m glad you like that – I figure there’s already enough people in this world sharing their opinion on the web (e.g. there’s gajillions of blogs). If I want to add value to the table, I’ve got to do something more.

    But more importantly, by looking at the data there’s been a number of times when I’ve discovered that my opinion was wrong.

  5. Things that makes me happy at first are the basic things like getting food-being able to eat when hungry, keep warm-not freezing, getting enough rest-sleep, stay healthy-fit and so on. That should be enough for a 47 – year old man.

    I also have noticed that as a more or less high sensation seeker,HSS, theese basic things do not satisfy my level of happines. I just have to do my things of play that use to be various actionsports to realy feel alive. When I,m playing at “arenas” like the slopestyle or the parks at some skiresorts I feel like it is ” no country for old men “, not because of that I feel old or lack of skills but more because the lack of other of my age or even near my age and if I for some reason get injured almost every one are telling me that men of my age are not supposed to do those things and that tend me to feel guilty. So my question is:
    Is it possible for a HSS-person to feel happiness just by simple things as a person that not is HSS?
    When I do those risky things I feel alive and by that I feel real happiness…….strongest feeling ever.
    I,m a bit worried getting older cause I know I will come to a point when my body is so worn out that I,m not able to do all my fun things that get me feel alive to feel happy.
    Would I wished I wouldn’t been a HSS-person? I dont know. Until now I’ve experienced so many moments that I’m so gratefull to. but when getting older?

    Thanks for your post about happiness. This was my thoughts about happiness and yes….maybe a bit off topic also. Sorry about some grammar fails-I’m not using english regulary .

    Best regards
    Tomo-soon heading to the ” No country for old men”

    • Hi Tomo,

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, and thanks even more for sharing your story and asking your question.

      I’ll be perfectly honest – I’m not sure. I’m a low sensation seeker, and most of the positive psychology work and study I’ve done has focused on low sensation seekers (who tend to be less happy, and in more need of happiness advice).

      I’m in the midst of writing an eBook right now, so if you can wait until I’m finished (mid-March), I promise I’ll take the time to give you as good an answer as you deserve.

      Thank you!


  6. Amit, this is one of your best posts yet. You are SO right about happiness and its role in our lives and the healthy ways to go about obtaining more of it. I love your understanding of how, to be truly happy, we must invest in others as much as we “selfishly” invest in ourselves.

    Well done, my friend!

    • Thanks Bobbi! I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking I’m slowly getting better at this whole blogging thing.

      One reason positive psychology excited me in the beginning was because of its claim that investing in others is as much an investment in oneself. My natural personality (and that of most others) inclines me to be generous and compassionate, but for years I was told I needed to be more ‘selfish’. That didn’t work out so well, so I was already starting to get skeptical. It was great when science backed up my intuition – it’s okay to be nice (actually, more than okay, as you’ve pointed out).

      • Good for you. I haven’t been as protective, although I certainly should have been.

        I’m curious though, why do you say artists, specifically musicians, would benefit from knowing and embracing that message? Are musicians particularly mean people? Do they think that helps with their creativity or image?

  7. Totally Agree! I so often hear the “selfish” word thrown around in personal development, whether it is seeking happiness or self care. There definitely is a negative vibe that comes with it, I personal don’t understand that.

    I firmly believe if am taking care of myself in whatever capacity I am going to be better equip to give more love/compassion/empathy/support etc…

    Excellent rant my friend!

    • I totally forget about that dimension, and you’re absolutely right – the better you treat yourself, the greater your capacity to give back to others. You’ve probably heard about the fact that happier people make more money. An interesting and often unnoted caveat is that after a certain level of happiness, income starts to decline. That’s because those are the folks who spend the most time giving back to their community. And why not? They’ve got the emotional strength for it.

      I’m glad you liked the rant! Thanks!

  8. Amit,
    I read recently that people who continually read books on being happy remain less happy even after years of studying the topic. Maybe they get so caught up in ‘the pursuit’ it becomes what they do.
    As I’ve gone through life my definition of what it takes to be happy changes.
    What made me happy at a certain point suddenly no longer works which means that it’s time to investigate where I’m at.
    Having the freedom to choose has always been a value important to me. Having that freedom makes me happy.
    But freedom meant a very different thing to me at 20 that it did at 50.

    • Amit:

      As usual – your depth of thought is impressive. In agreement with the theme of this post, I have always found that (at least in my life) my own happiness is highest when I can bring a measure of it to others.

      I agree with Bobbi. This may very well be my favorite post of yours. Very good work, my friend!

      • Thanks Gary!

        It’s not just you – I’ve found that in my own life as well. Giving to others lets me also receive more, but just as important, it feels good.

    • Hi Priska,

      That’s a great point. Having looked at the actual studies behind those articles, I’ll say they’re definitely editorializing, but you still bring up a few massive problems. One is that most people who read a happiness book don’t actually make any changes to their life. That should result in a zero change to their life, but because they now have higher expectations for what their life should be, it actually makes them less happy.

      Another is that people get too focused, getting caught up as you describe. Yet another is that that focus can backfire – spend too much energy trying to improve x, y, and z and you stop focusing on other important parts of your life.

      Yet another is that happiness advice in general is too vague – based off of averages rather than specifics. As you’ve said, what made you happy at one point may not make you happy at another. Happiness science isn’t yet mature enough to discriminate between the nuances of a person’s life. I certainly owe it to my readers to point out all of these problems, and I will. It’s hard to find a balance between rushing forward with what is already known and pulling back in precaution.

  9. Thanks Patti – I was going for a sort of psychedelic hallucination vibe, seems I got it about right.

    To be honest, I’m still oblivious in a million and a half ways. Some days I’m happier than others, and sometimes I know why, but other times I’m as lost as anyone else. Sometimes I can count of science to help me out, but as often I’ve got to rely on self-experimentation.

  10. Wow, I understand your anger to the article once I got the section on the pursuit of happiness being selfish and stupid. That seems over the top. But you could say that in some circumstances, some people do take the pursuit of happiness that far. Some people probably are selfish in their pursuit of happiness. Of course, those are individual people. The pursuit of happiness itself isn’t selfish. I don’t think of it as selfish at all. Some actions you take to get there might be selfish, but the goal isn’t selfish.

    I like the scenario of the happiness machine you put at the beginning of the post. I read about it in one of my philosophy classes in college. Back then I was on the fence. I could go either way in getting into the machine or not. Now, I wouldn’t do it. I think I just prefer happiness to happen organically.

    • It’s strange, isn’t it? I’ve seen the same shift happen in lots of other people – if happiness is the be all, end all, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from – organic or not. So the question is, are we just being antsy pantsy when we say no to the Happiness Machine, or is there actually more to life than happiness?

      I’ve never taken any philosophy classes, but I’ve always seen it as an important question. The past year of my studying positive psychology has made it clear – the happiest folks on earth are master meditators, so if my one and only goal is happiness, that’s the path I should pursue. But I do want more – I want to make the world a better place, and I don’t think I can do that as a meditator. What about you? Do you know why you would prefer happiness to happen organically?

  11. Wow! I’m impressed that you’re following up on all the references. You must really be trying to learn more about positive psychology!

    I’m glad you find them informative and thought-provoking 🙂

  12. I don’t get any of this. It doesn’t even begin to make sense to me. There’s so many nonsensical assumptions, outright delusions, and tracks of circular reasoning that I wonder if this is just something millennials will “dig”?

    You bastardize the meaning of words and rationalize that by falsely claiming that we’re now in a world of excess, where as the reality is the world of excess is fastly coming to an end… your train of thought is off by a couple of generations or so.

    It’s pretty bizarre, but that doesn’t much matter, anymore. Bizarre thoughts sell. Meh.


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