6 Uncomfortable Truths about Happiness

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The Great American Dream – anyone can rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful.

These dreams come from our culture – work hard, get a great education, work even harder, make lots of money, become attractive, marry a beautiful spouse, have kids, retire in a beach house.

Generally, our culture is good. It motivates and humanizes. It’s what says, “having an affair is wrong” when we come too close to losing control. It’s what says, “give back to your community” when we get too greedy.

Below I look at six dreams which I believe all of us have held at some point in our life, but which I believe deserve a second appraisal. Dreams which we are told will make us fulfilled and happy, but which may actually do very little besides use up our time.




Money often costs too much.                           -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Money buys happiness and increases life satisfaction. Just take a look at the graph below – as income increases, so does happiness.1

Ah my apologies, that's the wrong graph. I forgot the first rule of statistics: mislead, mislead, mislead.

That's better – now we see a clear relationship. More money = more happiness.

The average person with a family income of $60,000 is about 20% happier than someone with a family income of $15,000.

How can the difference be so small? So small that I had to manipulate the graph? The poor are more resilient than we think. The rich are too ambitious and overworked.

In my previous life as a wall street consultant, the high pay came with long hours and high stress. I was working 60 hours a week.

It's the same for all high-paying jobs. Lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or consultant – if you're getting paid above average, you're also working longer than average.

Was the extra 20 hours of work each week worth a 20% increase in life satisfaction? No.

A five minutes a day, 30 minutes a week gratitude journal could have done the same. More even.

Let's get geeky.

When evaluating a decision, estimate the potential benefit and the potential cost. If the benefit is high and the cost low, great. If it's the other way around, stay away.

In everyday life, this is called common sense.  In the world of business, this calculation is called return on investment (ROI).

A high paying job will cost about 20 extra hours each week in additional work and stress. Its potential reward is about a 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness.

A gratitude journal will cost about 30 minutes each week. Its potential reward is a 10 to 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness – let's say 15% for this calculation.

In other words, the ROI of a gratitude journal is 30 times the ROI of a high paying job.

In other words, you should quit your stressful job and start spending some more time being grateful. Or don't quit. It's just 30 minutes a week.

Takeaway: Materialism is inefficient.

Click below to read about another scheme.


There are no universal truths – just averages. You may be the exception that finds bliss from becoming rich or moving to a California beach. I hope you are – because those goals are easy compared to the true paths to happiness, which require changing our personality.

But as much as I hope and as much as you hope, you're unlikely to be that exception. So remember – just because society encourages you to be excited about something, just because you listened and now feel excited, doesn't make that something a good idea.

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.                           -Daniel Kahneman, founder of Behavioral Economics

Culture is humanizing. Culture is also often stupid.

Think I'm wrong about one of these ideas? Did I miss a happiness scheme? Tell me with a comment below!

13 thoughts on “6 Uncomfortable Truths about Happiness”

  1. Amit, this post is great. I see so many people who don’t take into account their overall happiness when choosing a career. It’s so true that a simple gratitude journal could go such a long way. We’re hoping more people start using this awesome tool.

    Thanks again for all the effort.


    • Hi Sean, I’m looking forward to seeing thankaday in action. The world can definitely use more gratitude technology.

      I think one big problem with picking careers is a lack of data. How are you really supposed to know what its impact will be with your overall happiness? One-size fits all job satisfaction numbers are generally all you get. Same with many other things – like California weather and a new house. The only ‘data’ you’ve got is your desire, which is a terrible predictor.

  2. This is a cool post, Amit! Love the way you can click through to the other schemes.

    My favorite is probably the one on children, since I very recently (like yesterday) became pretty certain that I don’t want to give birth. Ever. Thanks for reaffirming my choice! 😉

  3. Way up here in Canada, there are some places that get sunny days one after the next, like the Okanagan where I lived for three years. while it wasn’t endless days, it was many days of the year.

    I loved it and it did make me very happy! I am also one of those people that is effected by SAD, so the more time that I get to spend in the sunshine the better I am. Where I live now, not hot like the Okanagan but definitely still sunny a lot! it is perfect for me.

    Overall for me, sunshine adds to my overall out look on life and my level of happiness. I will never get tired of it or take it for granted!

    • Oh… that sounds so nice….

      “Overall for me, sunshine adds to my overall out look on life and my level of happiness. I will never get tired of it or take it for granted!”

      Is what you think, but is that really true o.O?

      Do you have any suspicions as to why that’s the case? Is it because you are more grateful in general, because sunshine is more important to you than to others and so remains top-of-mind, or something else? I definitely need to appreciate the summer weather more.

      • For me it is really true, because I believe it to be. For right now that servers me well.

        I think you are right though, it remains such a high priority because I keep it in the fore front of my mind. I have made previous important personal decisions using this criteria and will continue to do that in the future.

  4. I have tried all of the above to make me happy.
    What I have discovered is that happiness is transient, just like everything in life.
    Even if blessed with wealth, beauty, sunshine, children and education. None of it stays forever. There are also storms between the sunshine, and ugly times for those who have achieved beauty.
    Our perception on how we classify wealth, beauty, sunshine, education is also transient as we age and change. And of course, children grow up to have minds of their own. Their legacy may not be what you expected.

    • “What I have discovered is that happiness is transient”

      No! I refuse to accept that! I want a pill that gives me eternal happiness!

      Those are some good points… our desires are hard to keep satisfied.

  5. Cool post.
    Been there too and can assure that the exta working hours will never add value to happiness. Happiness comes from within and materalistic things have nothing to do with that.
    No need to sell your personal evening and week end time in order to regret about it later.
    People think they need much more than they really do in order to be happy.

    • Too true, and too sad. I’m just as guilty – even now I know I could do with less. It’s good we learned this lesson young 🙂

  6. Amit,
    I’m not one to get overwhelmed but this article has overwhelmed me. It’s overwhelmed me with your technical skill of making interacting with your content fun and surprising. It’s overwhelmed me with the substance beyond the very poignant takeaways you point out in each category. And you’ve overwhelmed me with all the research you’ve done and referenced in this article to support your case. There are 4 to 5 amazing quotes waiting to work their way into the fabric of society just in this article alone!
    I don’t think you’re wrong about any of this. It’s my sincere hope that more people discover Happier Human so they can benefit from it like I do. I’ll do my part to help your message and presence spread my friend.

  7. Wow. Your posts continually blow my mind.

    The ROI concept used in real world application is awesome. I’m going to begin using that.

    It’s simple and powerful because it helps bring out the science in making a choice.

    I think we often complicate things when it’s completely unnecessary. Some people are resistant to quantifying our decisions. Personally I think it can be incredibly eye opening when done with the right approach .

    • Thanks Izzy! That fact that you’re training to be a ninja in Japan continues to blow my mind. Seriously crazy.

      Happiness and life satisfaction are hard to quantify – the science is new and more an approximation than exact measurement. But I don’t think that’s a reason not to try.

      Like you said, in the process of quantifying, we have to cut through the BS and figure out and focus on what really matters.

      I look forward to seeing how you apply ROI.


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