The Pursuit of Happiness is a Dead End

May 9, 2017

by Ravi Raman

Should we strive to be happy?

Most people would agree that a happy life is a good life. Therefore, it seems like actively designing life to maximize happiness would be an excellent idea. Research, at first glance, appears to back up this point of view.

People with a positive demeanor (known as a “positive affect”) tend to do better in many areas of life. Research by Dr. Lyubomirsky and Dr. King demonstrate that happy individuals are successful across multiple areas of life: including marriage, income, work performance, and health. Their research shows that success not only makes people happy, but that positive affect also promotes success. Happiness is both correlated and causal for success. This outcome makes sense. After all, who would you rather hire or do business with, a Ms. Positive or Mr. Grumpy-Pants?

However, all too often, the active pursuit of happiness makes people less happy. Studies show that the more we think about and pursue happiness, the harder it is to find. It’s as if by seeking to be happy, we push it further and further out of our reach. Happiness, and captivation with it, is a trap of sorts.

So, happiness is good but pursuing it is bad? What’s going here?

What Makes Us Happy?

It may also be that we are just really bad at figuring out what makes us happy. After all, most people believe that material possessions and money bring joy, despite the fact that the age-old saying “money can’t buy happiness” has been proven through research. The exception is for those who are suffering in poverty or not able to provide for their basic human needs. $75,000 USD in household income appears to be the magic number.

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton Think A $75K Makes You Happy
                                         Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton Think A $75K Makes You Happy


Given this chasm, that positivity is linked to success and yet pursuing it can be self-defeating, what should we do? Should we give up on trying to live a happier life?

Not necessarily.

Instead of pursuing happiness with reckless abandon, and going on that shopping spree, there are a couple of alternatives to seeking out gratuitous pleasure. One alternative is to focus on living a meaningful life, not just a happy one. Another is to prioritize positive actions and daily habits.

Focus on Meaning

Some of the most meaningful times in my life were also the times when I was least happy in the moment. Caring for sick dogs and doing hard manual labor as a volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park Dog Sanctuary in Thailand a few years ago. Struggling through the final miles of a 50-mile ultramarathon or Ironman triathlon. Taking the leap from the safe confines of my corporate job to build a business predicated on helping people live better lives. These events were full of discomfort at the moment but had significant meaning regarding accomplishing personal goals or helping others.

Emily Esfahani Smith, the author of The Power of Meaning and happiness researcher, has this to say about living a meaningful life:

“Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think? From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. ”

How do we tap into meaning?

Meaning seems to be most prevalent when we are striving towards worthy goals and contributing to others and society along the way. Emily Smith’s book has deeper insights towards designing a meaningful life. I highly recommend checking it out.

Prioritize Positivity

Another strategy to improve happiness and positive affect are to actively “prioritize positivity.” This means doing more of the things that tend to result in your satisfaction on a regular basis.

A study by Dr. Catalino and Drs. Algoe and Fredrickson show that actively incorporating positivity into daily routines has a favorable impact on happiness:

“A decade of research reveals the benefits of positive emotions for mental and physical health; however, recent empirical work suggests the explicit pursuit of happiness may backfire. The present study hypothesized that the pursuit of happiness is not inherently self-defeating; in particular, individuals who seek positivity, as exemplified by how they make decisions about how to organize their day-to-day lives, may be happier. ”

Case Study

Here is how prioritizing positivity works for me. For example, in my life, there are a set of actions and decisions that tend to result in improving my level of happiness. These include:

  • Walking my dog
  • Going for a slow jog
  • Drinking a smoothie
  • Writing a blog post
  • Reading a book (currently reading this beast of a book!)
  • Connecting with a friend or family member

Knowing that these activities provide a positive boost to my day, I would be well-served to schedule these events throughout my week and incorporate them into my daily routine.

While this may seem indulgent, it’s a practice I’ve done for a few years now. It works wonders for me! Even when I don’t feel like going for my run (or doing any of the other items), I force myself to do them. Not only do I return to my work refreshed, but I also tend to feel more accomplished during my day.

What activities tend to make you happy, not just in the moment, but long-term? How can you prioritize these activities in your daily schedule?


The research is clear that while blindly striving to be happier can backfire, there are many proven benefits to seeking deeper meaning and daily positive experiences in life. Both of these approaches can result in elevated levels of happiness over time. The trick, it seems, is to allow the happiness to emerge organically as opposed to seeking it as the aim itself.

Perhaps Mrs. Roosevelt was right after all:

“Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

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