Why We’re All Wrong About the Pursuit of Happiness
I first bought The Power of Positive Thinking when I was 16 years old. The book was great and one of the entry-level readings into the world of personal development (along with Think and Grow Rich, of course).
That is the experience of most people as well. When they step into the world of self-help, they feel pulled towards the positive books. They tell you things are going to be great if you “have faith,” “stay positive,” “wither the storms,” and “believe in yourself.”
And in defense of corny self-help books, it works to some extent. I’m not someone who would lash out on positive self-help. (Mark Manson does a great job at that).
But I do realize that through no fault of their own (okay, maybe a little fault), they lead people in the wrong direction.
My journey into the world of positivity was nothing short of an emotional roller-coaster. I wanted someone to tell me “You can do it!” and “You have what it takes!” — and the books did just that. They were my drugs.
Don’t blame me. Like you, I wanted to feel good. And so I signed up for courses and bought more books to tell me how I should think:
- Affirm success and you shall have it,
- Don’t think negative thoughts,
- You are destined for greatness
- Remove negativity from your life
- Don’t do the things that make you angry, stressed, irritated or unhappy
- Set ambitious goals
- Work hard, play hard, and
- A plethora of quotes, principles, and habits that were ‘proven’ to help me succeed.
Yet, even after all this, I wasn’t any more of the things I wanted to be. Let alone productive, successful, wealthy — I wasn’t happy. Then I thought,
“Hey! Happiness is what you promised in the first place but I don’t have any. Are you serious? Give me my money back!”
So what went wrong? I’ll tell you.
If you notice all the things that I was told to do above, there’s one common trend in all of them — the rejection of the negatives in life. Throw them out of your mind, don’t think about them, and everything will be alright.
Try telling this to a single mom with two jobs or a family living from hand to mouth and tell me if they didn’t slap your butt.
To put it mildly, it doesn’t help at all. That is in a nutshell the problem with positivity. It’s become a coping mechanism to numb the pain in our lives. And no matter how many books you read, you can’t go far if you neglect the pain in your life.
This detestation on your part will come back to bite you in the rear.
Because the more you run away from pain, the more painful your life will become.
The Constants In Life
What humans consider as immutable, constant and never-changing can oftentimes be flat out wrong.
It’s safe to say that humans as a race are more intelligent than they ever have been. You can get food, watch movies and talk to your girlfriend in another country without even lifting your feet or getting a housekeeper.
Yet, even with all the advancements, it’s fascinating to think that we can be wrong about a lot of things.
I’m not talking about small mistakes that we all may make from time to time — humans default every day of their lives.
I’m talking about the big stuff.
At the time before Einstein when people we still studying Newtonian physics, Time and Space were considered to be universal constants.
This meant that whatever we experience has to be the same since time and space are constant for all human beings.
If you and I took a ride across town for one hour, both of us should feel that the ride was an hour-long. But that rarely happens. You might feel it as a few minutes and I may feel it was like a couple of hours. Time was the same. The space we traveled through was the same. Yet, our perceptions were different.
Let’s take another example of relativity. Imagine two cars traveling on the road at a speed of 60 km/h. If you’re standing on the sidewalk, you’ll find both of these cars to be going fast.
But if you’re driving one of these cars, you’d find the other one perfectly still. In fact, if you’re moving parallelly at the same speed, you’d be sure that they aren’t moving at all.
This was Einsteins' ming-boggling insight into the theory of relativity. He said that the perception of time and space changes according to the observer himself. Thus, it’s all relative. Instead of time and space, the speed of light is the constant in life against which everything else can be measured.
The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time will slow down for you.
The invalidation of these basic, universal assumptions made by many learned scientists, was a seismic discovery.
Prevalence-Induced Concept Change
You might be wondering how all this physics nonsense applies to you. Let me explain.
All this makes sense when you give a psychological touch to it.
From the above story, we learned that humans can be wrong about big things in life. And one big thing we all have been wrong about for decades is the pursuit of happiness.
Let’s see how.
A few researchers once took a few participants and showed them a few dots. A thousand to be precise.
All the participants had to do was to sit, stare at the screen and press the button “Blue” when a blue dot flashed on the screen. If a purple dot flashes, they had to press a button that said “Not Blue.”
Now, here’s the deal with all those dots. Most of them were blue, some were purple and others were mixed shades.
The researchers first showed a lot of blue dots. In this case, the participants were great at correctly identifying the color of the dots. But things started to turn around when they showed a lot less blue dots.
When they showed more shades of purple, the participants mistook the dots as blue, still. It’s as if they were color blinded by the whole experience.
So how does it explain the vanity of pursuing happiness? The answer lies in what the researchers decided to do next, and then after that.
They replaced the dots with faces of people — threatening, friendly, or neutral. Then the same process repeated itself. They showed more threatening faces at that start than in the end. Participants were getting them right.
As time went on, they showed fewer threatening faces. But the participants again mistook the friendly or neutral faces as threatening. Just like the participants “expected” to see a certain number of blue dots, they also expected a certain number of threatening faces even if there were none.
Then they replaced the faces with resumes of people. Participants had to decide which ones looked ethical and which were unethical. The same pattern revealed itself. The more unethical resumes were shown, the more they expected people to be unethical, even if they were not.
To make it more personal, whenever we see someone being kind and generous, we immediately doubt them. We think there must be an ulterior motive behind the person’s actions or they’re trying to manipulate us. Just because we’ve seen a lot of bad guys, we start to look for bad guys even if there are none.
This is why more experienced people in business take a lot of time to trust people whereas a newbie has a lower threshold for giving their trust.
This effect explains what’s wrong with our pursuit of happiness.
Since we all look for the negatives in life even if there are none, we stress over little things.
Imagine if the world turned to utopia tomorrow. There wasn’t any poverty, climate change, murders, rapes, robberies, fraud, stealing, etc. Now ask yourself, will society be better off?
Not really. Even if we get rid of these big “societal evils,” we will still not be happy. Because the mind will find other things to be pissed about. The AC isn’t working. The sugar in the coffee isn’t right. The bread is roasted for ten more seconds. The lawnmower isn’t working. And so on.
Thus, in our pursuit of happiness, the act of removing stressors from our lives doesn’t make us happier. It makes us miserable.
Anything that breaks in the face of chaos is fragile. Anything that merely sustains it, is robust. And anything that gains from disorder is antifragile.
Glass is fragile. You drop it, it breaks. An oil drum is robust. No matter how much you throw it around, nothing would happen. A soccer ball is antifragile. The harder you hit on the wall, the faster it bounces back to hit you in the face.
Another example of an antifragile system is the airline safety system. The more crashes happen, the more these guys learn from it, and the less is the probability of the next crash. Startups are also antifragile for they constantly learn and iterate on their mistakes.
Our goal with life is also to be antifragile. Yet, most of us are fragile, trying to be robust.
We are fragile since we break in the face of pain. We’re trying to thus be robust by ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist. We chase more happiness by removing the stressors from our lives.
But we never actually get anywhere.
To be antifragile is to get off the couch and chase pain. If you avoid exercise because you don’t want the pain of sore muscles, you become weak. If you chase the pain and embrace it, you become stronger.
The mind works in similar ways. The more we embrace pain, the more we learn. The more we avoid pain, the lower our threshold of embracing pain becomes and where does this lead us? Being pissed off on the TV remote that’s not working. Because that’s your threshold of pain.
Pain Is the Universal Constant
In the 1980s and 90s, psychologists tried to study happiness by asking people how happy they were at different points during the day. They were given a pager and asked to note down their happiness levels on a scale of one to ten.
After analyzing the data, the psychologists found that most people were at a ‘7’ most times.
Except obviously when something really bad or really good happened. If a close relative passed away, the scale would shift to ‘3’. When they were getting married, the scale would shift to ‘10’.
But eventually, it would come back to seven.
Thus, no one was fully happy all the time. We were always ‘kinda’ happy thinking that something else is always needed to get us to ‘10.’
For instance, if you got a big fat bonus at work, you were at a 10, but then you came back to 7, and now you think you need another bonus to go back to 10.
In simpler words, things are always fine but they can always be better. No matter how better they’ve already gotten.
This is the hedonic treadmill in action. You get a big bonus, get a house, another bonus comes, you get a pool for yourself, then you run after a high paying job to pay for your mansion. Next thing you know, you’re sitting at a beach pissed off at the waiter for not putting enough ice in your cocktail.
And then, if you’re sober and aware enough, you finally think how the hell life came to this point.
The fact of the matter is, you assumed that you were a constant. Just like we assumed that time and space are constant. You assumed that no matter what happens around you if you just got to “10,” you would stay there.
But to your surprise, you always found something to bring yourself back to 7. The water in the pool wasn’t hot enough, the cocktail wasn’t cold enough, your car wasn’t fast enough, your net worth wasn’t big enough, and so on.
Every time you reached a “10,” your mind searched for another problem in your life and put it in front of you saying “Excuse me, what about this problem right here?”
Being reminded of that problem, no matter how large or small, you slowly drifted back to “7,” thinking “Yeah, life is fine, but it can be better.”
So what’s the conclusion here? Pursuing happiness isn’t the goal here. Because in that pursuit, you remove pain from your lives. And as we saw, the pain will always be there. Yesterday, you weren’t able to put food on the table. Today, you’re worried about the amount of salt in the caviar.
Different pains, I agree. But pain, still.
Pain is then the universal constant. And if you try to get away from it, it will backfire.
No matter which direction your life goes in, pain is always going to be there. The only choice you have is whether you’ll embrace it or avoid it.
Whether you’ll be fragile or antifragile.
And how do you be antifragile? By not suffering. By realizing that although pain is constant, suffering is not.
Meditation is a great way to do that. By closing your eyes, and seeing things for what they are, you realize that no pain is big enough to rattle you.
Whether someone puts a bullet in your stomach or the room temperature isn’t quite right, you don’t suffer.
That’s what the Buddha taught. The only thing we need to embrace pain, find meaning in it, dive into the negative pools, and come out stronger on the other side.
Don’t run away from pain. Embrace it. Bathe in it. You know, as they say, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
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