The Hidden Costs of Happiness

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Anyone who has ever taken an economics class has heard the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything has a cost, even if that cost is not always immediately apparent. To achieve anything, you must give up something else.

In today’s happiness-obsessed culture, most pursue the opposite: we want to be happy with no costs, and all of the benefits. We want the rewards without the risks, the gain without the pain.

Ironically, it is this unwillingness to sacrifice anything that makes us more miserable.

Happiness has costs. Happiness is not free. And despite what Cover Girl or Tony Robbins or the Dalai Lama once told you, it’s not always easy breezy figuring out how to be happy either. Here’s how to start figuring out the ‘how’ of being happy.

You Must Accept Imperfection and Flaws

Many people believe that if they just collect a house, a spouse, a car, and exactly 2.5 children, everything will be “perfect.” Tick each item off the list, be happy and old for a couple decades, and then you die.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Problems don’t go away—they change and evolve. Today’s perfection becomes tomorrow’s swampy cesspool of shit, and the quicker we accept that the point of life is progress and not perfection1, the sooner we can all order a pizza and go home.

How to be happy: a man with hand over face
Image credit: Victor Bezrukov

Perfection is an idealization. It can be approached but never reached. Whatever your conception of “perfect” is in your pretty little head, it is, in itself, an imperfect unattainable idea. In reality though, it does not exist.

We don’t get to decide what perfection is. All we can know is what is better or worse than what is now. And even then we’re often wrong.

When we let go of our conception of what is perfect and what “should” be2, we relieve ourselves of the stress and frustration of living up to some arbitrary standard. And usually, this standard isn’t even ours! It’s a standard we adopted from other people3.

Accepting imperfection is hard because it forces us to accept that we have to live with things we don’t like. We want to hold onto control and let the whole world know how Western democracy should be and why the season finale to Game of Thrones was possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened. If only the world would cater to my wants, then everything would be better.

But life will never conform to all of our desires. Ever. And we will always be wrong about something, in some way. Ironically, it’s the acceptance of this that allows us to be happy, allowing us to appreciate the flaws in ourselves and in others4,5. And that, my friends, is a good thing.

3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life

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    You Must Take Responsibility For Your Problems

    Blaming the world for our problems is the easy way out. It’s tempting and it can even be satisfying. When we blame others, we get to be the victims and we get to be all emo and indignant at all of the terrible injustices that have been inflicted upon us. We wallow in our imagined victimhood so as to make ourselves feel unique and special in ways in which we never got to feel unique and special anywhere else.

    But our problems are not unique. And we are not special.

    The beauty of accepting the imperfection of your own knowledge is that you can no longer be certain that you’re not to blame for your own problems6,7,8. Are you really late because of traffic? Or could you have left earlier? Is your ex really a selfish asshole? Or were you manipulative and overly demanding towards him? Is it really the incompetence of your manager that lost you your promotion? Or was there something more you could have done?

    The truth is usually somewhere around “both,”—although it varies from situation to situation. But the point is that you can only fix your own imperfections and not the imperfections of others. Your self, your control, your work. So you may as well get started.

    Sure, shit happens. It’s not your fault a drunk driver hit you and you lost your leg to a botched surgery. But it is your responsibility to recover from that loss, both physically and emotionally. So get recovering.

    Blaming others for the problems in your life may give you a smidgen of short-term relief, but ultimately it implies something entirely insidious: that you are incapable of controlling your own fate. And that’s the most depressing assumption of all to live with.

    You Must Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

    Bravery is not the absence of fear. Bravery is feeling the fear, the doubt, the insecurity, and deciding that something else is more important. And then doing it.

    If we identify with our moment-to-moment emotional states and sensitivities, our happiness will surge and crash like a deregulated Wall Street derivatives orgy. For those of you who don’t know anything about Wall Street, that’s really bad. We want sturdy, resilient happiness. Not derivatives orgies.

    True, long-lasting, kid-tested-and-mother-approved happiness is derived not from our immediate emotional states—being constantly giddy is impossible and would be unbearably annoying. Rather, our long-term happiness is derived from the deeper values we define for ourselves. Ultimate Life Satisfaction™ is not defined by what we do and what happens to us, but why we do what we do and what it means to us.

    How to be happy: Woman climbing a mountain at beautiful location

    You Must Find a Deeper Purpose to Your Actions

    A better way of saying this is you must choose what motivates you. Is it something superficial and external? Or is it something more meaningful?

    Being motivated by money for the sake of money leads to unstable emotional regulation and a lot of obnoxious and superficial behavior. Being motivated by money so that one can provide a good life for their family and children is a much sturdier foundation to work with. That deeper purpose will motivate one through the stress and fear and inevitable complications that a more superficial motivation would not9.

    Being motivated by the approval of others leads to needy and unattractive behavior. Being motivated by the approval of others because you’re an artist and you want to construct art that moves and inspires people in new and powerful ways is far more sustainable and noble. You’ll be able to work through disapproval, embarrassments, and the occasional disaster.

    How does one find their deeper purpose? Well, it’s not easy. But then again, robust and resilient lifelong happiness isn’t easy either. (What, you mean nobody ever told you that?)

    A large chunk of my book is about finding a deeper purpose in our lives. But here’s a hint: it has something to do with growth and contribution. Growth means finding a way to make yourself a better person. Contribution means finding a way to make other people better. Look for ways that you can integrate those into your motivations.

    There’s nothing wrong with sex, money, and rock and roll (hey, preaching to the choir here). But the sex needs to be motivated by something deeper than sex, the money needs to be motivated by a value more sustainable than simply money, and the rock and roll needs to just fucking rock. Find a way to slide growth and/or contribution under them and bam — you get the best of both worlds.

    You Must Be Willing to Fail and Be Embarrassed

    In my book on dating, I wrote, “You cannot be a powerful life-changing presence to some people without being a complete joke and embarrassment to others.”

    Interestingly, this has become probably the most quoted line from the book and the one I get emailed about the most often.

    How to be happy: young man sad silhouette in studio isolated on white background

    The beautiful thing about humanity is the diversity of life values. When you live out your values and let them motivate your actions and behaviors, you will inevitably clash with those whose values contradict your own. These people will not like you. They will leave nasty anonymous comments on the internet and make inappropriate remarks about your mother. Anything you do that’s important will inevitably be accompanied by those who wish for you to fail. Not because they’re bad people, but because their values differ from yours.

    (OK, some of them are fucking awful people.)

    As someone much wiser than me once said, “Haters gonna hate.”

    In any venture, failure is required to make progress10,11. And progress, by definition, is what drives happiness—the progress of ourselves, the progress of others, the progress of our values and what we care about. Without failure, there is no progress and without progress, there is no happiness.

    Relish the pain. Bathe in the scorn. One of the most important skills in life is not how to avoid getting knocked down, but rather learning how to stand back up. Haters gonna hate.


    1. Acknowledging failure as a part of progress is a key part of a ‘growth mindset’ made popular by psychologist Carol Dweck and her research.
    2. Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2008, ‘A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change.’, Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 186–193.
    3. McAdams, DP & McLean, KC 2013, ‘Narrative Identity’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 233–238.
    4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a field of psychology that seeks to change the cognitive relationship to unhelpful thoughts primarily through acceptance of emotions as a ‘signal’ and then to re-interpret or redefine what that signal might mean. CBT seeks encourage patients to “attempt new ways of thinking about himself or herself, the world, and/or others and to test these newly reformulated hypotheses in reality.”
    5. Lopes, RT, Gonçalves, MM, Machado, PPP, Sinai, D, et al. 2014, ‘Narrative Therapy vs. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for moderate depression: Empirical evidence from a controlled clinical trial’, Psychotherapy Research, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 662–674.
    6. One way researchers consider this is the ‘locus of control‘. Those with an internal locus believe they are largely in control of what happens to them; people who have an external locus think things are beyond their control. A high internal locus of control has been linked with higher academic achievement, performance at work and better health outcomes
    7. Shermer, M 2011, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Henry Holt and Company.
    8. Kormanik, MB & Rocco, TS 2009, ‘Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement: A Review of the Locus of Control Construct’, Human Resource Development Review, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 463–483.
    9. Bronk, K. C., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, T. L., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groupsThe Journal of Positive Psychology4(6), 500–510.
    10. Dweck, CS 2008, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books.
    11. Dweck, C 2016, ‘What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means’, Harvard Business Review.