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Journal: The Paradox of Happiness
Enduring happiness exists — as a potential. It is not waiting neatly packaged to be shipped from Amazon. You have to manufacture it yourself.
After the last few pieces, I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness and the ingredients for a ‘good life’.
What kind of mindset should we cultivate in a world that pushes us towards cynicism and escapism?
How can we find happiness in an increasingly chaotic world whose cruelty we are confronted with relentlessly on social media? (By disconnecting regularly. Seriously: Nat Eliason pointed out this stunning passage from a new book: after the Boston Marathon Bombing, “…people who binge-watched bombing news on TV from the comfort of home had more psychological trauma than people who were actually bombed.”).
But as I was writing, I started to wrestle with the premise. Was it tone-deaf and self-indulgent to write about happiness in the face of so much suffering?
I don’t think so. Much as we should be concerned about where the world at large is heading, we remain primarily responsible for what occurs in our tiny corner. In fact, the very question about the appropriateness of seeking happiness fits into a framework which I call the paradox of happiness.
The shame of abundance
How is it that, collectively, we have more than ever, yet we still wrestle with happiness?
Comedian Louis C.K. once made a wonderful joke about people who complained that the wi-fi on airplanes was too slow. This minor nuisance distracted them from experiencing the miracle of flight. “Everything is awesome,” he quipped, “and nobody is happy.”
Well, not everything is awesome. But, yes, for a lot of people things are pretty, pretty good. And yet we know that people can be awfully unhappy. Compared to previous generations, we are richer, our lives are more convenient, and we are surrounded by amazing technology. And yet we struggle with anxiety and depression and face epidemics of loneliness, addiction, and suicide. What’s going on?
The paradox is not that we search for meaning, peace, happiness, love, and connection. That’s as old as the hills. Each generation has to rediscover how to master their inner world. The paradox is that today, surrounded by abundance, it can feel shameful to even be caught in this struggle to have our inner needs met.
Outer progress is quantifiable. There is a deluge of data pointing out that things are better, that global GDP is up and poverty down, that the average person is better educated, has access to better healthcare, can tap into the infinite knowledge stored on the Internet, and that your phone takes better pictures … The subtext is a subtle accusation: don’t we understand that we have it better than all who came before us? If we’re not happy, we must not understand that we are living in the best of times. In other words: what is wrong with us?
The obvious answer is that external abundance does not make us happy. But do we understand this? (And if it is true, what does?)
The happiness confusion
I consulted the book The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness which presents the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a monumental effort to track the lives and well-being of several hundred people since 1938. The study started with a group of Harvard graduates and merged with a second one following a group of “inner-city Boston boys”. Every two years, the subjects filled out lengthy questionnaires, every five years they shared their health records, every fifteen years they met face-face-with the researchers.
While the researchers use the term happiness, what they refer to is Aristotle’s eudaimonia, a ‘good life’ at the intersection of a state of well-being, happiness, contentment, meaning, and purpose, as opposed to hedonia (and hedonism), the fleeting happiness and pleasure.
“If hedonic happiness is what you mean when you say you’re having a good time, then eudaimonic happiness is what we mean when we say life is good.”
Dr. Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director, and his co-author point out that people are mistaken about what makes for a good life. He found that people look to tangible external achievements:
In a recent survey of millennials, when asked what they wanted in their adult life, over 80% said they wanted to get rich, 50% said they wanted to get famous, and 50% said they wanted high career achievements.
But wealth and fame are not key ingredients for a good life and the authors conclude that people “are terrible at knowing what is good for them.” They call it a “hard truth that we would all do well to accept.”
I’ve seen this claim before but call me a skeptic. Do we really not understand what will make us happy?
Sure, there is research that shows we are bad at predicting whether a specific situation will make us happy. For example, people fear the downside of talking to strangers on a train, yet they typically end up happier after the interaction. But I don’t buy the idea that we lack intuition about what makes us happy.
You can invert the question and ponder what would make for a miserable life. Poor health, loneliness, lack of autonomy, addiction, work that has no meaning, chronic stress, poverty, no dignity, no respect, no sunlight, not living ones values, poor sleep, constant anxiety, lack of self worth, and on and on…
Look around on social media and you find the output of all that happiness research:
Every time I see one, I shrug. They seem trivial and kind of boring, to be honest.
“Would you rather make $100,000 a year with a spouse who loves you, children who admire you, good friends, good health, and a clear conscience,” Morgan Housel recently wrote, “or make $1,000,000 and have none of those things? It’s so obvious.”
Indeed, it is obvious. But why doesn’t it stick?
Waldinger believes it comes down to an issue of distraction. He points at social media and advertising which, he argues, we let define the good life for us.
Ads tell us that consumption ought to make us happy, that we ought to look and act a certain way. We judge our everyday lives against the curated lives of others, and young people, who are more deeply entrenched in digital media than any generation before them, are particularly vulnerable to this constant self-comparison.
We end up comparing “our insides to other people’s outsides” and, inevitably, find evidence that we lack. Unfortunately, by now we are conditioned to trust the dual forces of science and business to solve our problems. And in this case, they fail us.
They fail us because the drivers of lasting happiness can't be commercialized.
Have you ever watched a group of businesspeople discuss societal issues like the loneliness epidemic? What could be the solution, they wonder, and inevitably come up with a business idea. How about a paid community, a new kind of cafe or third space, an app, events, AI… We twist our minds into a pretzel because we are trained to look for any solution in the form of a business.
But happiness is not a business problem. With the exception of healthcare, the ingredients of the good life are not profitable. Once that sinks in, people lose interest.
Society needs you to be productive, consumptive, and to raise the next generation. The system is interested in your baseline satisfaction but indifferent to whether you enjoy a good life. But it is definitely interested in selling you the promise of happiness. And what could that be? Well, the answer to your perceived lack. Indulgence, luxury, beauty, objects, pleasure, excitement, distraction. Those are very profitable.
The answers are right in front of us and have always been. But they are neither exciting nor profitable. They will not be advertised or reinforced. The good life has no advocate in the marketplace of attention.
The paradox of investment
Paradoxically, though it is not that expensive, the good life can still feel unaffordable.
The most important factor under our control, the Harvard Study found, was the quality of our relationships. In fact, if Dr. Waldinger and his colleagues had to boil their entire 84-year study “down to a single principle for living,” it would be that “good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”
“Among the many predictors of health and happiness, from good diet to exercise to level of income, a life of good relationships stands out for its power and consistency.”
The best investment is that in warm relationships “of all kinds” (family, friends, work, community, creative/hobbies/interests etc.). Unfortunately, “the value of relationships is ephemeral and hard to quantify.” On the other hand, money, achievements, social media followers and all that can be counted. They offer tangible markers of our progress. As a result, Dr. Waldinger writes, “money, achievement, and status all have a tendency to overtake other priorities.” Our ancient brains “focus on what is most visible, and most immediate.”
Investments in health and relationships don’t offer an immediate and tangible return. And their price is not primarily money but rather that which is truly precious and which we are reluctant to invest:
Effort and energy
Investing in the good life requires time, energy, and courage; courage to be vulnerable, to risk rejection, to commit to your values, and to stray from the herd. The good life doesn’t offer status or social media brownie points. It doesn’t feel productive and it doesn’t contain the kernel of the next great startup.
Conclusion and ideas
A fit body, a calm mind, a house full of love. These things cannot be bought — they must be earned. — Naval
Enduring happiness exists — as a potential. It is not waiting neatly packaged to be shipped from Amazon. You have to manufacture it yourself. Once you understand this, you also understand that you can’t afford not to invest in it. The good news? It is never too late.
One thing the large body of research into human flourishing clearly shows—from our longitudinal study and from dozens of others—is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, where you are in the life cycle, whether you are married or not married, introverted or extroverted; everyone can make positive turns in their life. — The Good Life
While your version of the good life is unique, you can look to history and research for the ingredients. But deep down, I believe, you already know most of these. More importantly, it’s your job to hold on to the formula when the great distraction machine starts pulling on your attention. That’s when you’re truly on your own. Because in the marketplace of attention, the pleasant and profitable distraction beats the quiet yet enduring.
“Chief among the myths” about what makes a happy life, Waldinger writes, “is the idea that happiness is something you achieve.” The good life is not a destination but a process, not a having but a being and doing. Working towards it doesn’t require lots of research, fancy tools, or a business. It requires commitment, action, and a bit of courage to be different. In a world caught up in emotion and status games, it may even feel like a quiet act of rebellion.
I’m off to disconnect and spend a couple of days upstate in nature. That’s part of my formula. Thank you for reading and have a great weekend,
Read, contemplate, take action.
1) “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
2) “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.”
3) “I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.”
4) “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
5) “I wish I had let myself be happier”
When the first round of participants were in their 80s, the interviewers asked them what they wished they had done differently, and what they were most proud of. The men replied that they wished they hadn’t spent as much time at work, but with the people they cared about. The women replied that they wished they hadn’t worried about what people thought of them. For both genders, their proudest achievements all had to do with relationships. Participants were proud of being a good parent, partner, friend, or mentor. — The Good Life
Frameworks to find ingredients:
Tom Morgan’s interview with an exceptional life coach: “A life without Emotional Diversification is a serious liability and not a ton of fun. … When we get obsessed we become weak. If all one cares about is a single relationship or a single job they become incredibly fragile and incapable of weathering minor fluctuations, setbacks or criticisms. Your well-being becomes too wrapped up in how that job goes, in how that relationship goes. To be healthy and resilient we must spread our emotional capital out. You need some things that you do just for the intrinsic value they provide and many things that are capable of consuming you completely in the moment. This is about hobbies, relationships, projects, learning, creating, travel, jobs, spirituality etc.”
“An evidence base spanning nearly 30 years indicates that focusing on intrinsic goals (such as for growth, relationships, community giving, and health) promotes well-being, whereas a focus on extrinsic goals (such as for wealth, fame, and beauty) deters well-being.”
Meta Analysis: How to be happy (based on 3,438 primary studies):