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#64: Happiness Is the Wrong Question

#64: Happiness Is the Wrong Question

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you become a slightly less awful human being.

1. What do we know about happiness? – For years now, I’ve written that ruminating on one’s happiness is probably not helpful. Happiness is not the point. And if you make it the point, then you’re not going to be happy. 

This view has put me at odds against the dozens of popular “How to Be Happy” books that have been published in the past ten years. It’s forced me to give advice contrary to the field of positive psychology, which exploded in the past few decades. And it’s made me the proverbial turd in the punch bowl of the self-help industry party. 

Well, Christmas came early for me this past year. Because a couple months ago, a paper was published that analyzed thousands of happiness studies across multiple decades of research to see if we had learned how to make people happier. 

The results were damning. Not only have we not gotten any better at making people happier, but interventions have actually become less effective than they were twenty years ago. 

If you remember, a couple months ago, I wrote about how, after more than half a century of theorizing and study, psychotherapy is no more effective than it was when Freud was still seeing penises everywhere. In the 1990s, Martin Seligman declared that psychology would no longer merely focus on what made people feel bad, but instead also study what made people feel good. The idea was that if we could quantify and measure happiness, we could learn to promote it… and everybody would live happily ever after. 

It appears we have a case of, “same shit; different century” going on here. Just as decades of theorizing failed to move the needle on alleviating human suffering, decades of theorizing have failed to move the needle on human happiness. Meanwhile, the field of positive psychology has done little more than avail psychology professors opportunities to write bestselling self-help books with more scientific-sounding versions of the same advice you get in normal self-help books. 

It’s crap like this that gives the whole field a bad name. 

The problem with psychology isn’t the methods. We know therapy works. We know certain things make people happier. 

The problem with psychology is the questions. 

Much like the point I made in Subtle Art—if you value the wrong things, it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how productive you are, you’re going to end up in the wrong place—similarly, if you ask the wrong questions, it doesn’t matter how much data you collect, or how many studies you commission, your answers will be meaningless.

2. Happiness is the wrong question – The problem with focusing on enhancing happiness is very similar to the problem with wanting to eliminate sadness or anxiety.

Emotions are value-neutral. That is, I can be happy for great reasons and I can be happy for terrible reasons. I can be anxious for great reasons and I can be anxious for terrible reasons. The value of the emotion is in the reason for the emotion, not in the emotion itself. 

Here’s an extreme example of what I mean. According to Ted Bundy, he was ecstatically happy while murdering his dozens of victims. They were the emotional peak experiences of his life. He spoke of killing his victims in almost spiritual terms. By all accounts, he showed no remorse or regret and was quite pleased with himself until his execution. 

Conversely, war veterans often speak of their deployment as the most significant and profound experiences of their lives. This is despite the fact that they are suffering intensely for months on end, experiencing relentless violence, disease, and death, and they often experience intense depression and/or PTSD when they come home for years afterward. 

The problem with trying to measure and optimize happiness is that happiness is infinitely contextual. Whatever “strategies or tactics” we adopt to make ourselves happy today will be consolidated into the context for our wants and desires tomorrow. 

That’s why I say it’s better to simply disregard the question of happiness altogether. Instead, focus on meaning—finding meaningful activities and building meaningful relationships. If you nail those two, happiness takes care of itself.

3. How to build a better life – Since this is the first newsletter of the new year, it feels mandatory to say something about goals or resolutions or “new you” or whatever. I am planning on writing a thorough article on goal-setting soon. But long-time readers know that I’m not a religious goal-setting zealot like a lot of people in this industry. In fact, many years ago, I made the case for why goals are overrated.

The truth is, we’re bad at knowing what will actually benefit us in the future. Therefore, I take a pretty loose approach to goals. Their value is in the direction they give me, not the progress they necessitate. I use goals more as guideposts than anything. And I give myself the freedom to discard them when necessary. 

But more on that soon. In the meantime, I want to remind you that I do have a course that is catered to these “new year; new you” moments. It’s called the Build a Better Life Course. It’s a simple six-step process that I use to evaluate my values, how I’m spending my time, and what small shifts I can make in the coming year to better reflect what matters to me. 

It’s a great exercise. And you get a sweet-ass print out at the end of it to refer to throughout the year. It comes with The Subtle Art School membership, along with five other brand-new video courses, monthly webinars with yours truly, and a bunch of bonus materials that will help you give fewer fucks in life. You can learn more here

Until next week,