Don’t Wish for Happiness. Work for It.
September 07, 2023
If you want to improve your well-being, you need to make a plan and act on it.
In his 1851 work American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.” This is basically a restatement of the Stoic philosophers’ “paradox of happiness”: To attain happiness, we must not try to attain it.
A number of scholars have set out to test this claim. For example, researchers writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 found that valuing happiness was associated with lower moods, less well-being, and more depressive symptoms under conditions of low life stress. At first, this would seem to support the happiness paradox—that thinking about it makes it harder to get. But there are alternative explanations. For example, unhappy people might say they “value happiness” more than those who already possess it, just as hungry people value food more than those who are full.
More to the point, wishing you were happier does not mean that you are working to improve your happiness. Think of your friend who complains about her job every day but never tries to find a new one. No doubt she wishes she were happier—but for whatever reason, she doesn’t do the work to improve her circumstances. This is not evidence that she can’t become happier, or that her wishes are bringing her down.
In truth, happiness requires effort, not just desire. Focusing on your dissatisfaction and wishing things were different in your life is a recipe for unhappiness if you don’t take action to put yourself on a better path. But if you make an effort to understand human happiness, formulate a plan to apply what you learn to your life, execute on it, and share what you learn with others, happiness will almost surely follow.
When it comes to happiness and unhappiness, people often confuse rumination with self-awareness. Psychologists define the former as “recursive self-focused thinking.” It is to dwell on something about yourself, without recourse to new knowledge. Many studies show that rumination can exacerbate bad emotions and deepen depression, because it reinforces your negative emotional status quo.
In contrast, self-awareness—to be attentive to our own thinking processes—leads to new knowledge and breakthroughs. One recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that self-awareness allows us to recognize emotional cues and distractions and to redirect our minds in productive ways. In essence, studying your own mind and pondering ways to improve your happiness takes inchoate anxieties and mental meandering and transforms them into real plans for life improvement.
Rumination is to be stuck; self-reflection is to seek to be unstuck. The trick, of course, is telling the difference. Say you have just experienced a breakup. If you go over the painful circumstances again and again, like watching a looped video for hours and days, this is rumination. To break out of the cycle and begin the process of self-reflection, you’d have to follow the painful memory with insightful questions. For example: “Is this a recurring pattern in my life? If so, why?” “If I could do it over again, what would I do differently?” “What can I read to help inform me more about what I have just experienced and use it constructively?”
Self-reflection moves feelings of unhappiness from our reactive brains to our executive brains, where we can manage them through concrete action. The action itself is crucial. There is an old joke about a man who asks God every day to let him win the lottery. After many years of this prayer, he finally gets an answer from heaven: “Do me a favor,” says God. “Buy a ticket.” If you want happiness, reflecting on why you don’t have it and seeking information on how to attain it is a good start. But if you don’t use that information, you’re not buying a ticket.
Easier said than done, I realize. When we are happy, we are primed for action; unhappiness often makes us want to cocoon. The way to fight this is to do the opposite of what you want to do: When you’re unhappy, don’t curl up and watch a sad movie. Exercise, call a friend in need, and read up on happiness instead. You will be reprogrammed for action.
Once you’ve reflected (not ruminated), learned, taken action, and reaped the happy rewards, it’s time to make sure the benefits are not temporary—that you don’t fall back into simply wishing. The key is sharing your new knowledge with other people.
Teaching arithmetic problems to others has been shown to improve people’s ability to solve them, and in my experience, the same is true for the study of happiness: Sharing knowledge cements it in your own mind. One of the most important assignments I give my graduate students is for them to talk about the science and art of happiness at every party they go to. This ensures that they have the ideas clear enough in their heads to explain them to others. (It also makes them more popular.)
Further, when we share knowledge about how to become happier, we persuade ourselves every bit as much as we do others. It is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that asking people to argue in favor of something can be a great way to get them to believe it. Sharing the secrets to happiness will also make you happier, because doing so is an act of love. And as we have all learned, love is generative: The more you give it, the more of it you get.
I tremble at the thought of contradicting Hawthorne and the Stoics. But it is not true that pursuing happiness must lead to a “wild-goose chase,” or that thinking about happiness makes it more elusive. Like everything else in life that is worthwhile, pursuing happiness requires intellectual energy and real effort. You simply have to do the work. The good news is that the work will be joyful, and the results quite wonderful.
© 2023 Arthur Brooks, as first published in The Atlantic.