4 Human Traits that Make Finding Happiness So Hard


I'm so happy!

Is it me, or does it seem like happiness is a topic that has been getting more and more attention over the past couple of years?

There have been countless books, blog posts and articles written about where to find it, how to get it and how to keep it.

With all the recent talk about it, you’d think there would be enough tips to make finding happiness much easier.

But happiness can still seem elusive.  Just when you think you’ve found it, something comes along to take it away.

Why is it so hard?

It comes down to human nature.  We’re very complex.  We all want different things and have different motivations.

The fact is that people are wired in such a way that makes finding happiness harder.

Here are those traits that make finding happiness so damn hard.

1. We can’t decide what happiness even is

How would you define happiness?

Ask this question to ten people and you could come up with eleven answers.

There are countless definitions of happiness out there.  While they share some basic elements, they do have some radically different interpretations.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “a state of well-being and contentment.”

The ancient Greeks described it with the term eudaimonia which roughly combines two concepts: abundance and the power to control your destiny.

Ghandi said it’s “when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.”

This is just a sample of hundreds of definitions.

It’s not as if happiness is a physical object.  You can’t go to a store and point to it.

That makes it extremely difficult to describe.  And since it’s hard to define, it’s hard to find.

Our desire for what makes us happy is ingrained in us.  Yet our inability to accurately describe it is an obstacle keeping us away from it.

2. We always have to make trade-offs

I think most of us would agree that happiness at some basic level makes us feel good.  So if we look at it that way, we should try to maximize those good feelings as much as possible.

If it were as simple as avoiding bad things and replacing them with good things, it would be easy.

But it isn’t always that easy.  When making decisions about where we want our lives to go, it’s not usually about giving up something bad for something good.  There are tradeoffs.

In order to get one good thing, we often have to give up another good thing.

For example, I consider my move from Minneapolis to Houston a good idea.  My wife moved to a better job and we were both ready to go somewhere warm all year round.

Yet even though I knew it would improve my life, I was still sad.  I missed Minneapolis the moment we left.  It wasn’t a bad place to live at all; I loved it there.

A lot of decisions are like this.

Marrying my wife was one of the happiest days of my life.  Every day I’m grateful to be with her.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my bachelor days.  They were good too – just in a different way.

That’s how life is.  We often have to give up something we love to get something we’ll love even more.

When making decisions about where we want our lives to go, we often have to sacrifice something we love.  We can’t have it all – no matter how much we wish we could.

3. We can’t control happiness completely

If there is one piece of advice I read constantly about happiness, it is that it’s a choice.  Choose to be happy or sad; it’s up to you.

The way people describe it, they seem to think choosing happiness is a cure-all.  It’s as if that’s all you need.

Making yourself happy works, but only up to a certain point.  Despite what we all want to believe, you can’t control it completely.

There are going to be situations and life circumstances that make you sad.

I’m expecting sad times to come my way in the future.  People close to me will die one day – it’s going to happen at one point or another.

That situation will make me sad whether I choose to be sad or not.

Unhappy situations and circumstances do happen.  And they’re not always within our control.  But once again – that’s life.

Choosing happiness is a great way to feel better most of the time.  But when tragedy strikes, those sad feelings will pop up.

4. We adapt too well to positive changes

How much will winning the lottery make you happy?

Well, reports from those who have actually won it show that happiness does go up significantly.  At least at first.

Eventually that amazing feeling subsides and the joy of winning goes away.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “the hedonic treadmill”.  It’s our ability to return to our previous level of happiness after a major positive life change.

Think of it like a hot bath.  When you first get in, you can feel the heat.  But eventually you adapt to it until you don’t even notice how hot the water is anymore.

The good news is that it works both ways.  When bad things happen, you adapt and adjust until you reach the same level of happiness as before.  That’s good when bad things happen.

It’s not so good when we want to bring a little more happiness into our lives.

Find Your Happiness

Of course, none of these things are insurmountable obstacles to finding happiness – they can all be overcome if you put your mind to it.  They just make finding happiness harder.

Part of what makes life worth living is looking for what makes you happy.  It can take a while to find, but when it comes to happiness, it’s worth it.
photo credit: Little Thoughts

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  1. What makes happiness difficult for me is the fact that I need change because I get bored of things quickly. Stoicism helped me calm my insatiability to an extent, but I still feel like I get used to whatever too soon.

    • I get bored of things quickly too so I know what you’re talking about. I adapt really well and get used to things around me very easily. I’m with you, I need mix things up frequently.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Happiness really can only be defined for each individual by themselves, although a lot of self-awareness and self-reflection is required.

    Also, I think overall happiness has to include our ability to manage the ups and downs. As you said, there will always be things that will make us sad that are beyond our control. I think that when we have a strong internal locus of control happiness is easier to attain. That said, happiness is a state of being and not a state of having, and it will always fluctuate.

    • I like the way you put that: happiness is a state of being and not a state of having. So happiness isn’t something we can have, it is something we are.

      You’re right that the ability to manage the ups and downs is important. Just because a situation can come along to make you sad, doesn’t mean it’s the end of happiness. Bad things have happened to me, but I bounced back. Having that ability to bounce back is great.

  3. Steve, I really like how you elaborate on your subheadings. Surely your techniques make for a model of blogging bad*$$ness! :)

    I am an upbeat and happy person. I’ve never been one to mope about. But, when I was very sick for two years, I wasn’t exactly fun to be around. I was in a lot of pain, and you can only fake it for so long. What I did was choose small actions that I was capable of at the time, so that I felt like I had some control over the situation. Even if it was simply to call the doctor’s office to move up my app’t, that simple step felt like a step.

    I like how you point out that you can’t have it all. No one has it all – no matter how lovely things look on TV or in a blog post. You have to give up in order to give – in your case a great city you loved. I do think being able to adjust is essential and I would encourage anyone who thinks they have to have certain things or life will just be miserable to think again. I thought moving out of this city would be the answer, the final piece in the happiness puzzle, but with some minor adjustments in my perspective, I’m here to report I’m happy as I’ve ever been – perhaps even happier!

    Happy today to you!

    • That’s an interesting perspective. It would be hard to maintain a good composure after being sick for that long. I’m glad you could take some control over the situation. Even that little bit probably helped out and made a bad situation a little better. Little things like that can make all the difference.

      I like what you said, “no one has it all – no matter how lovely things look on TV or in blog posts.” It’s so true. Just look at how Facebook distorts our view of other people. Friends only post the good things. They filter out their daily troubles and just present their victories. That can give you a skewed reality of how other people live their lives.

      • Hi, Steve ~
        (and Tammy) ~ I’m very glad, too, that “…you could take some control over the situation.”
        Equally (or maybe even more-so) important is *recognizing* the things – large and small and even tiny – that you CAN have some control over!
        It’s so easy to fall into the popular “all or nothing” mindset – one way or completely the other (which might not even be the real opposite) – really, the world is made of multi-dimensional spectra and Dance!

        • I think it’s easy to get into an all or nothing mindset too. The world has a lot of middle ground in it so we shouldn’t ignore that.

  4. Wow this is very true. I have always struggled with the concept of happiness and even understanding what makes me happy. And when I’m in the middle of what should be an amazing experience, I get used to it, and the joy fades. Like how 2 week vacations can get “old”.. even though by all measures you’re having a better time than you were at home.

    • I get that way too when traveling. As much as I love traveling, there is a limit to how much of it you can do. I’ve actually found around two months of constant traveling and moving around from place to place, you start to see diminishing returns. After that, I just want to stay in one spot for awhile.

  5. Steve! Great approach to the overdone topic of happiness. This is a great reminder that we as humans will always return to our baseline. If we can nudge that baseline to be a bit brighter and more positive, that would be great, but who knows if that is possible.

    Your first point is a real show stopper though. Defining happiness is impossible for one person let alone a society. That ought to give us pause when we go searching for it. Fools gold.

    I love the idea of getting really good at something and seeing where it takes me. And I love the idea of having as much fun along the way as is humanly possible.

    Have a dilly of a day!!!

    • Apparently there has been quite a bit of research on how you can increase your baseline level of happiness. I don’t want to comment on it too much since I haven’t read any of the research on it. From what I’ve heard, it does happen, but no one knows how yet.

  6. I think what makes one person happy does not necessary make someone else happy. Primary because we all have different passions and dreams which if we focus on will bring about happiness and fulfillment. Great post and thoughts my friend.

    • It’s true. What makes me happy isn’t typical for most people. We all have different motivations so it’s natural that finding happiness is a pretty subjective concept.

  7. You are so right, especially about the trade offs. Happiness doesn’t mean that life is perfect, or else there would be no happiness in the world. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns out there for anyone. As Keith and Dan both pointed out, it is a uniquely personal emotion. The exact same circumstances that make one person happy could have a dramatically different effect on someone else.

    • You just made me think of something. The situation that makes people happy will be different for most people, but does the underlying emotion change from person to person? Since situations need to be different for each person, does that mean we all feel happiness in a different way? Food for thought.

  8. Steve,

    I totally agree. Happiness is elusive to many people because of these basic traits of human nature.

    Sometimes I think it can be a side effect of our high speed society. Many people are always in a rush, or are distracted by the glitz and glam and do not have the time to stop and enjoy all the little things. There is so much in life to be happy about if people just take the TIME to enjoy the things they have.

    • There is a good case for being grateful for what we have. We all have good things going for us and we should focus on those things instead of what we don’t have.

  9. I like what Dan said about happiness being different for different people. It’s about how it is defined by the individual, as you said in your post, Steve.

    For me, it changes over time. Like you said about missing your bachelor days but also being happy in your marriage – happiness and what it means changes with life circumstances.

    One has more power over the other. For me, I miss my friends in the UK but wouldn’t trade my life in Paris for that. It IS a conscious choice.

    What is it about this subject that has taken on a life of it’s own over the last few years? First world problems??!!

    – Razwana

    • Doesn’t it feel like the topic has exploded over the past few years? So it’s not just me, that’s good to know.

      Yeah, it could be a case of first world problems. Looking at some other countries, they have to worry about hunger or major conflicts.

  10. Happiness is elusive for many. The traits you listed here definitely point to it being tough for most find happiness in their life.

    But for me, I follow Viktor Frankl’s quote on happiness: “Happiness can’t be pursued, it must ensue.” By following your purpose and doing meaningful things, happiness will come.

    I definitely agree 100% that you must define happiness for yourself. Without a clear definition and a clear purpose in front of you, happiness may never come.

    • I’ve had Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning on my list to read for a while so maybe I should get around to it. Just from the little I know, what you said sounds like what he talks about. I think it will make for interesting reading.

  11. Steve, great article as always. I tend to be restless. I set a goal, but once I get here it’s never quite enough. This can be extremely dangerous and it’s something I have to fight.
    It’s far better to just be content where I am. Every single day. There are always reasons to be thankful, and thankfulness results in happiness and contentment.

    • yeah, a lot of people mention gratitude and being thankful as a good step to happiness. It’s good to remind yourself of all the things you have – that’s much better than constantly reminding yourself of all the things you don’t have.

  12. I agree that you no amount of choosing to be happy will prevent you from being sad from time to time. I do however think that we make a choice to be happy as a rule or not. Call me crazy, but I choose to be happy. I can’t control those things that come along to upset that, but I can choose how I react to them – and just that makes me happy.

    • Yeah, I think choosing to be happy is a good general rule. It’s hard to be happy if you don’t choose to be. But I think of choosing happiness as an everyday kind of thing. Those unfortunate times, when they occur, make it hard to be happy simply by choosing to be.

  13. All that you said here is incredibly true! A lot of people who should be happy because they have everything to be happy with in their life: financial stability, loving family and what not, still find reasons to be miserable. Why can’t we just be happy without overanalyzing everything too much? In fact, suicidal rate is higher in developed countries. Very sad…

    • Maybe we do analyze it too much. There is something to be said for just letting life happen and not worrying so much if everything is perfect. Sometimes we have more than we realize.

  14. Hello Steve, I wrote two posts on happiness – “Mindfulness Plus Compassion Equals Happiness” http://www.ahhthesimplelife.com/mindfulness-plus-compassion-equals-happiness/ and “Happiness How-To’s” http://www.ahhthesimplelife.com/happiness-tos/

    It’s interesting to compare our ideas – Both of us recognize the importance of gratitude in the happiness equation. We both admonish that we can’t control happiness completely.

    You have made some excellent points. Enjoyed reading your post.

  15. Happiness is appreciating the simple blessings we have in life and being grateful to all the things life has to offer. Thanks for sharing a very relevant post. Great !

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