All Articles Leadership Inspiration Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable?

Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable?

The more we pursue happiness, the more elusive it can become, writes LaRae Quy, who recommends focusing on well-being instead.

8 min read



Flashpop/Getty Images

America’s infatuation with happiness goes back to our founding fathers and the US Constitution, which promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

In that fairy tale, reality stepped in and yanked off the Band-Aid that was supposed to heal all our hurts and problems. If we’re not happy, does that make us losers? Maybe for some, but most of us feel battered by our culture’s continued obsession with our inalienable right to be happy. 

Has our obsession with being happy produced the opposite — unhappiness? While that sounds logical, experts quickly point out that happiness and unhappiness are not opposites. Instead, research conducted by psychological scientist Ed Deiner found that the two emotions operate independently and are activated in different regions of the brain. When we rid ourselves of some unhappiness in our lives, it does not mean we will become happier.

So, happiness is not simply the absence of unhappiness. Research shows that when we are unhappy, other mental health issues can rear their ugly head, such as depression and anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that depression and anxiety disorders affect 31.9% of teens between 13-18 years of age and 19% of the adult population.

Lyra Health surveyed health care leaders nationwide to identify trends in mental health benefits for the coming 2024 year. The most striking takeaway from this year’s survey is that 94% of respondents say offering mental health benefits is “very important” to prospective employees — nearly triple the rate of benefits leaders who said this in the 2023 previous year (36%). 

Happiness is an elusive goal

Happiness is a constant chase. And because it’s a moving target, our happiness often depends on something in the future. We’re miserable because we can never enjoy where we are now; we think we’ll be happy when we get a bigger house, office, car or bonus. Maybe we’ll be happy when we lose 10 pounds, find the right romantic partner or find the perfect job. We fool ourselves into thinking that happiness requires the presence of certain people or circumstances — and the absence of others. That thinking keeps us on a chase that looks more like a treadmill than a path forward. 

Let’s look at simple reasons the pursuit of happiness can make us miserable.:

1. Poor understanding of happiness

Psychologist Roy Baumeister distinguished between focusing on happiness and living a life of meaning. Sure, happiness produces positive emotions. We are happy eating ice cream, watching a sunset or looking into our dog’s eyes. What is not to love?

The pursuit of happiness makes us miserable because happiness has a short life span. Moments or events can bring wonderful feelings of fun and excitement, but then reality settles back in, and we find ourselves scrambling for the next happiness “hit.” In our rush for happiness, we fail to define what it is; instead, we focus solely on how to get it. Our pursuit has devolved into a money-making industry for scammers with no integrity, writers of little depth and therapists with limited talent.

If you think that a life spent doing things you enjoy is a good life, then you risk missing out on life’s greater pleasures. Sure, you want to enjoy life, but everyone experiences pain, loss, disappointment, injury or sickness. Pain is the inevitable result of being alive. It’s unavoidable, and to deny the problem of pain in our effort to be happy, we make ourselves miserable.

An important question is whether a life of meaningful pain is more valuable than a life of meaningless pleasure. Studies have shown that loving relationships lead to happiness, but we also know that love can also be the cause of pain. Some of life’s best moments require some amount of pain — giving birth, writing a book or running a marathon.

Our preoccupation with constant happiness has blurred our understanding of what it means to live a life of meaningful pain. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, if something hurts, makes us feel bad or challenges our ideology, we ignore it because we don’t understand that pain is not eliminated through pleasure but through meaning.  What if problems and problem-solving were essential for a well-lived life? A life of meaningful pain might be more valuable than one of meaningless pleasure.

How to make it work for you

Think about a moment that filled you with joy and meaning. Now, look at the road that took you there. What problems did you need to overcome? Fulfillment comes from solving problems. The joy is in the overcoming. You don’t need fewer problems. You need more solutions.

2. Living without hope

It’s not the lack of happiness that makes us miserable. Instead, it’s the void that can’t be filled with people, places and things that we think will lead to happiness. Instead, it can lead to something much worse — hopelessness. 

Hope is believing in something greater than ourselves. Without it, we think we are nothing. Hope gives us a reason to get up in the morning and tackle the world. We believe something matters in our lives. Without hope, we die spiritually. If we don’t believe there’s any hope that the future will be better than the present, that our life will improve somehow, we give up. So, the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness; it’s hopelessness.

Hope has become a necessity. It’s the emotional engine we need to engage with life, each other and ourselves. Hope is fertile and full of possibilities. It’s not the same as optimism, which can easily spill over into daydreaming and wishful thinking. Hope is a positive attitude about life; without it, we would ask, “Is this all there is?” Hope is what gives our lives a sense of purpose. It implies there’s something better for us in the future and that we can be part of it.

It’s irritating to hear people prattle on about finding their life’s purpose when they only need to discover what matters to them. What should they hope for? How can they know unless they live by their values? What would constitute a life of meaningful pain?

This is the hard part, but it’s something each of us needs to excavate for ourselves. We can’t expect to find the answer in a book written for the multitudes. It’s deeply personal. It’s also why many people are attracted to religion because faith communities are comfortable with searching their hearts amid the unknown.

Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, said: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” 

How to make it work for you: Epictetus recommends the following:

  • There are things one has control over: opinions, goals, desires, reactions, aversions and affairs of our own.
  • There are things one has no control over: external states of affairs, nature, genetics, reputation and other people’s reactions.
  • We can‘t control other people‘s behavior towards us or what they think about us.
  • To be happy, we should focus only on things under our control, namely our reactions and responses to situations in the world.

3. Focus on well-being

Aristotle believed that the passing pleasure of happiness is secondary to living a good life or achieving eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a cumbersome and old-fashioned word, so most modern scholars have translated it to mean well-being or “human flourishing.” Everyone wants to flourish, but the tricky question is, what sort of things enable one to live well so we can grow?

Psychologists say it is an illusion to expect external events or circumstances like wealth or marriage to create happiness. When we look outside ourselves for happiness, we no longer have agency over our lives and rely on others to make us happy. For decades, studies have pointed toward the same essential conclusion: People who rate materialistic goals like wealth as top personal priorities are significantly likelier to be more anxious, more depressed, more frequent drug users and even to have more physical ailments than those who set their sights on more intrinsic values.

No one sums up the moral snares of materialism more famously than St. Paul in his First Letter to Timothy: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (I Tim. 6:10 NIV) 

According to Aristotle, well-being is the ultimate purpose of life. It is not about an emotional state of eternal contentment or the amount of things we acquire. Aristotle argued that the question of what makes someone happy and what makes someone a good person aren’t separate. The relationship between ethical goodness and living a good life is of far more consequence than simply settling for happiness.

How to make it work for you: Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the standards, principles and things truly meaningful to you?
  • What are the things that give you a sense of significance, a sense of purpose?
  • What motivates you?
  • In what way are you making a difference? 
  • How are you connected to your community and those around you? What role are you playing?


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


Take advantage of SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletters on leadership and business transformation, among the company’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.