The Biggest Reason Finding Happiness is So Hard



I think most people would say that finding happiness is one of their biggest goals in life.  You can see this reflected in the amount of money people spend on books, seminars and talks all promising to help you find a happier way of living.  The pursuit of happiness was even written into the US Declaration of Independence.

There are some people who can find happiness just a little better than others.  But that doesn’t mean it is easy to get.  Happiness is an abstract concept; not something you can easily buy off the shelf in a store.  Plus, there’s a little quirk about human nature that makes finding happiness harder than it should be.

The Nature of Happiness Seeking

That little quirk of human nature is called the impact bias.  It’s the way people overestimate their predictions about the length and intensity of future feeling states.  Since happiness is a feeling, it falls under this bias.  Basically it means people aren’t good at figuring out what to do in order to make themselves happier for long periods of time.

For example, if you wanted to become happier would you rather win the lottery or become a paraplegic?  I’m sure most of you would pick winning the lottery.  And for a short time, you would be right.  Lottery winners do get an initial burst of happiness, but it doesn’t last.  According to one study, happiness levels for both lottery winners and paraplegics eventually go back to their previous levels.  Given enough time for both lottery winners and paraplegics and you’ll find that their happiness levels remained unchanged.

Back to the New Normal

I think a lot of people genuinely expect that winning the lottery will make them happy.  And that expectation comes directly from the impact bias.  Most people only think about the positives of winning and don’t consider everything else that might happen as a result of all that money.

There’s a reason lottery winners and paraplegics eventually revert back to their initial level of happiness.  They adapt to their new way of life.  The burst of happiness you get from all that money or  the intense sadness of losing mobility eventually becomes normal for you.  In other words, you get used to it.

No matter how happy you become after winning the lottery, eventually that excitement is going to wear off.  You’re left with a lot of money you can use to buy all new pleasures, but it decreases some pleasures you had before.  Similarly, becoming a paraplegic can deprive you of some pleasures, but make more mundane activities more valuable and pleasurable.

Despite what you might expect, neither event really increases or decreases the amount of pleasure you receive in life.  All they do is shift where your pleasure comes from.  Once that shift has taken full effect, you go back to your previous level of happiness and start from where you left off.

You Can’t Predict Happiness

Because everyone is affected by the impact bias, it makes it very hard to predict what will make you happier.  And it doesn’t just apply to winning the lottery.  Whatever you’re doing now that you think might increase your happiness in the future might not have the positive impact you’re expecting it to have.

It’s not hard to see the impact bias happening around you.  How many people have you met that mistakenly thought their career paths would bring them happiness?  Many sports fans who see their teams win big games are often not as happy as they expected to be.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to make yourself happier.  People can actively do things to make themselves much happier.  What the impact bias means is that it isn’t as easy to make yourself happier as you would expect.  It’s a stumbling block on the way to discovering your own happiness.

I think the secret to finding happiness is in experimentation.  Work towards something you think will make you happy and see if it actually has a long term positive effect on your happiness.  You might find a lot of things that won’t make you happy, but eventually you‘ll find some that do.  Because of the impact bias, it might take a lot of trial and error to get there.

Make Yourself Happier

Being unable to predict what will really bring you happiness makes finding it much harder.  After all, how are you suppose to know what path will really make your life better?  But if you’re like me, you’ve made discovering what makes you happy one of your top priorities.  Now at least I know you have to try harder than winning the lottery.

Have you ever overestimated what you thought would make you happier?  What do you think makes people happy?
photo credit: Camdiluv ♥

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  1. the most elusive thing in this world 😉 probably when we stop looking outside we’ll eventually find it :-)

    • Happiness really can be a hard thing to get. I think it is a better idea to start looking for it on the inside of yourself and not on the outside. While I think you can find happiness on the outside, it only comes after you get it on the inside.

  2. I think it is really hard to predict – accurately – what will make you happy. I do believe however, that when you recognise that something in your life causes you more upset than happiness, it is best to fix / leave / ditch it and move on. Life is too short to put up with bad stuff.

    • Hey Liv, you make an interesting point. Rather than trying to predict what will make you happy and heading towards that, what if you just avoided those things that make you unhappy? People may be bad at predicting what makes them happy, but it is easy to figure out what makes you unhappy. Perhaps finding happiness should be more about avoiding the bad stuff. That’s something to think about.

  3. Steve,

    I like your experiential approach for finding happiness because people can read every self-help book ever published but if they don’t do anything with the information, they’ll never get the results they were seeking. I once thought that shopping would make me happy but the enjoyment wasn’t sustainable and I just ended up with expensive things that I needed to maintain. What has made me happiest is practicing yoga to become more aware and living life on my own terms. Cheers!

    • Heather, I enjoy yoga too. It gives me energy and relaxes me.

      I’m glad you agree with the experimental approach to finding happiness. Since it is hard to figure out what you like, you just have to go out and do it. You really can’t just sit around and think about something. Eventually you have to just do it and see for yourself. Personally, I experimented with yoga and discovered that I really like it.

  4. Hey Steve great post.

    Reminds me a lot of the book I read by Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.

    What interests me the most is like that example you gave with the lottery and the paraplegic. After time both will return to original happiness levels. Almost like a happiness homeostasis if you will.

    I think that we underestimate how much our current mood plays a part in predicted happiness levels. It’s like if your stuffed with food, you can’t even imagine eating the next day let alone the next meal. This is what plays such an enormous part in our miscalculations for future happiness.

    I try and remind myself that happiness is a decision. And if all else fails I fake it till I make it. Throw on some headphones and dance while making my lunch and before I know it, I’m kind of having a good time!

    • Hey Chris, I haven’t read that book so I’ll have to check it out.

      Throwing on headphones and dancing would make me happy too. I have to admit that I break out into a dance number with my wife out of the blue every once in a while. That always manages to cheer me up. Stuff like that can really make a difference. I read somewhere that forcing yourself to smile when you’re in a bad mood can emotionally make you feel better. I’ve done it and it does work.

      You’re right about there being a happiness homeostasis. In fact, there’s a concept in psychology about that called the hedonic treadmill. I think there is some validity to it, but I don’t think someone’s happiness level is fixed permanently at one point.

  5. Hey Steve,

    IMHO, nothing will MAKE you happy. Happiness is a state of being, one you can achieve by letting go of all the rules you’ve set up about yourself and the world. When you think “I have to do this or that to be happy”, you’re almost certainly going to fall short. That’s not to say the experience isn’t valuable, as you so wisely pointed out. But for me, the journey has been about getting quiet, meditating, and figuring out who I really am and what I really want (and it wasn’t what I thought it would be). True happiness doesn’t depend on how much money you have, or if you can walk. There are people who live in utter poverty and war zones who are happy. And there are people who have a meltdown because their iPod stopped working. It’s all a matter of perspective. If you’re unhappy, you’re going to be unhappy in a castle. If you’re happy, you’re going to be happy in a shack. The peripherals just don’t matter anymore. But when you are happy, the Universe has to bring you more and more stuff that feels like that, so you don’t have to stay in the shack for long. It’s the old adage: You get what you need when you no longer need it. Or all the hotties show up as soon as you’re in a relationship. :)

    Happy shiny puppy hugs,

    • Melody, you make a good point when you say the peripherals don’t matter. I think that’s very true. You can be completely happy living in poverty or being rich. Sometimes the surroundings don’t seem to have much of an effect. Perhaps you’re right about letting go of the rules you set about yourself and the world.

      In fact, I’ve noticed that many very unhappy people I know seem to have very unrealistic expectations about themselves or how the world should be around them. I know I was like that at one point too. When they or the world don’t meet those expectations, they get upset. It seems that by just letting go of any unrealistic expectations and accepting yourself and any errors you make, you can be much more positive. You gave me some great things to think about. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I’d always thought happiness was my goal in life. Then I read an article by Paulo Coelho saying that the quest for hapiness as a principal objective is not part of his world. What pushes him forward is not the quest for hapiness but curiosity, challenges, a good fight with its victories and defeats, daring beyond his limits. This is what helps him live his human condition to the full.
    So now, I’m still looking for happiness or rather the happy moments life will offer and I’m determined to enjoy them and not let them pass. And I’m also looking forward to the ups and downs and the experiences in between.

    • Isabelle, Paulo Coelho has an interesting perspective. Sometimes it’s better to just focus on things like curiosity, challenges and victories rather than happiness itself. It’s good to just enjoy the ride and all the good and bad times that come with it. If you only experience the good times, you aren’t getting the full picture of what life is really like.

      • Totally agree Steve! Thanks for writing on the subject of happiness. It’s made me think about what happiness is for me and made me look back at that article from Paulo Coehlio that I didn’t quite understand at first.
        Best Wishes

  7. Steve.

    I am still catching up on posts! This one made me really think about whether I SHOULD answer…or not.

    I believe that I am happier than I have been in years, possibly ever, and for a longer time. The “Key”?

    The secret is no secret. I am learning to let go. I am honestly (me to me) striving every single day to become a better person, student, trainer, mom, manager, cook, blogger, friend and child of God. No bull shit (even to myself), every single day practicing what I am learning and what I have learned.

    I am working hard on very little sleep, juggling all the roles that are my own very carefully (that’s how I fell so far behind!! LOL, I got SICK!), taking a deep breath and always asking myself straight to the point questions.

    * Is this mine to do / worry about / fix / work on? (for example, is there any dang thing I can do about the weather and the effect it will have on the wild sheep population? NO.)

    * Is this something I can do? By working harder, studying harder, nagging more? (for example, We need our home finished. The Castle is only approximately ONE WEEK TO TEN DAYS away -that was 2 years ago- from completion. Our cabin makes loving life (and each other) very difficult. The guy building left. No reasons, no excuses, just broke his promises and left. The answer? No, I cannot build the house.)

    * Are my intentions pure? (by that I mean, am I going to stomp you into the dirt and poop on you so that I have less competition?) Is my walk all about my talk? Am I being who I say I am?

    * Are the people around me (whether it is the group of pals you hang out with or the people that surround you online) the kind of people I want to be? Good, Successful, Confident, Generous, Kind, Helpful, Genuine, Strong spiritually?

    And finally, I have to ask myself,

    * Am I working hard? Am I focused? Do I believe? Then,LET. IT. GO. Continue to work hard, stay focused, and put the worries into the hands that made me, God. (this is the tough one for me, I like to grab it all back from Him, and try to run my own life….)

    Am I giggling and rolling around in flowers? No. Life is NOT easy! But, I am happier. I have been pretty happy for the last long while. Not smiley happy, cause I’m just not. But, inside? I feel good, Steve. Really good.

    The group of people I have found online to learn from, be inspired by, and just plain get to know and enjoy have made my world glow for me. They (you) are part of every sunrise here in Chisana. Part of the golden evening light that spills over the Alaska mountains.



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