The Myth of Happiness

“A contented mind is the greatest blessing a man can enjoy in this world.”

– Joseph Addison

If you ask most people what they want in life, the answer more often than not is ‘to be happy.” Similarly if you ask parents what they want for their kids, again the response is ‘for them to be happy’.

This reminds me of a story I once heard about greyhound racing. If you are unfamiliar with greyhound racing, it is a lot like horse racing but with greyhounds. Since greyhounds are too small for a jockey, dog tracks implement a different technique.

Ten or fifteen feet in front of the starting blocks sits a stuffed rabbit on a mechanical arm. As soon as the bell goes off and the gates open the mechanical arm begins to whip around the track with the pack of greyhounds frantically chase after the rabbit.

The story I heard was of one greyhound that actually caught up to that rabbit. It had been a great racing dog up until that point. However, after it caught the stuffed rabbit, it refused to race again.

It got exactly what it thought it wanted. Only then did it realize that what it had been chasing wasn’t what it wanted at all. This has always struck me as a cautionary tale for people’s pursuit of happiness.

What is Happiness?

Happiness is a feeling. It is what happens when you make a new purchase you are excited about. Or get a promotion at work. Or have a really great first date. These are all great things and they should bring you happiness.

But happiness, like all feelings, is fleeting. It doesn’t last. You experience it and then it dissipates. Happiness is not a permanent state of being. Therefore achieving a permanent state of happiness is about as likely as visiting the lost city of Atlantis on a unicorn.

Yet we continue to strive to attain this mythological state of being called happiness. So we buy the next gadget or pair of shoes, convinced this is the missing ingredient. Or we break up with the significant other who just isn’t making us happy anymore.

These steps may bring us a temporary sense of happiness, but it doesn’t last. So we look for something else, and the cycle continues. Never realizing that the thing we are chasing is not what we really want, we may end up spending a lifetime in pursuit of a stuffed rabbit.

So What Should we Chase?

I believe a more appropriate goal in life is to seek contentment or fulfillment. To me, finding contentment means ensuring the life I’m living matches up with my values. It means that I have meaning and purpose in my life. I’m not simply chasing a fleeting feeling.

A content life allows for both positive and negative emotions. I can experience the moments of joy and happiness life brings. But I can also feel sadness or disappointment without losing my sense of contentment.

For example, if I am doing work that is meaningful to me. Have a family life that fulfills me. And am living according to my own personal values. Then I would say I’ve achieved a healthy degree of contentment.

This does not mean I don’t feel disappointment when my kids make poor decisions at school. It does not mean that I always get the promotion I’m hoping for. Nor does it mean my heart won’t be broken when my kids break up with their first love, or get cut from the basketball team.

These things are less disruptive when I’m anchored to contentment. Not getting the promotion doesn’t make my job any less meaningful. Disappointment in a child’s poor choice doesn’t make me any less fulfilled by my family life. And watching my kids struggle in life won’t cause me to stray from my values.

However, if I had anchored myself to a need to “be happy”, then these events would throw my world into upheaval. I wouldn’t be happy and with nothing else to latch onto, I’d feel lost on top of the sadness, disappointment or broken heartedness.

Don’t Confuse Comfort for Contentment

Part of living a content life is a desire to grow and improve yourself and your life. However, growth requires some degree of pain or fear or discomfort. So in order to be seeking a life of contentment, there will be times in which you’ll have to sacrifice comfort.

It is easy to feel comfortable in life and mistake that comfort for contentment. While comfort is a good thing, it is only a step away from complacency. Allowing yourself to live in a state of comfort for too long may lead to stagnation.

A content life will have periods of comfort and it will have periods of growth. Finding the balance between them is the trick to ensuring you continue down the contentment path.

Let me know what you think: Am I being too hard on ‘happiness’ or am I on to something? Do you seek happiness or contentment in your life?

10 Comments

  1. Stellar post MSF! I definitely think you are on to something. I typically think of myself as a “happy” person, but to be honest since finding the FIRE world, I now feel fulfilled and content with my life’s plan. This feeling has permeated everything in my life and even when feeling a little blue, it is much easier to embrace that feeling for a moment without letting it throw my entire life off-kilter.

    1. Thanks Mrs. Wow – Having a happy disposition is a great way to go through life, but as you’ve found, having a deeper sense of contentment will help you weather the storm when life makes happiness impossible.

  2. I am reminded of a favorite quote from that Debbie-downer Nietzsche: “He how has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

    I could also go full Buddhist and suggest that chasing any goal is ill-advised, and accepting the impermanence of existence is the only way to achieve true contentment.

    If I had to choose between happiness or meaning in my life, I would choose meaning.

    1. I’m with you. I think happiness and saddness are just seasons in life, but finding meaning leads to lasting contentment. And lasting contentment opens to door to more happy days. Good thing we don’t have to choose one or the other. 🙂

  3. Great read and thoughts on this MSF!

    I think I really started to think like this after starting a family. Sure it was a very happy time, but the fulfillment of being a father and raising a son is so much more than that.

    I don’t want to just be chasing happiness, only in the end to find out that I missed out on being content and enjoying the deeper long lasting feelings of fatherhood, whether good or bad.

    I like you added in that there will be growth. If you only strive to be happy, you will miss out on the opportunities to grow and feel some discomfort along the way.

    1. Thanks Cameron. Becoming a parent definately gives you perspective on the emotional spectrum. A difficult day with your kid can still be fulfilling, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself happy on a day like that. I appreciate the thoughtful comment!

  4. Happiness is not permanent just like any other thing in life. Your life has ups and downs, like a sine wave 🙂 But without downs, you would not be able to appreciate the ups. To wrap up in a single quote.
    “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” /Francis Bacon
    Awesome post MSF, thanks for sharing.

    1. Great quote! I couldn’t agree more about the ups and downs of life. It is all part of the journey, but if you focus on a deeper meaning, you can experience those ups and downs while anchored to contentment.

  5. You bring up such great points, I love your quote “It is easy to feel comfortable in life and mistake that comfort for contentment. ” Although feeling comfortable in life is great, being slightly uncomfortable is often what leads us to grow!

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