Here’s Why Happiness Always Feels Just Out of Reach

Experts agree that we’re defining ‘happy’ all wrong.

Photo Courtesy of AJ Garcia, Unsplash

Meet Matt. A former engineering and economics student, Matt entered the business world as a manager at a software company, where his job was to help other companies figure out what exactly they were trying to accomplish and how they could get there—their fundamental goal, if you will. Unsurprisingly, that goal was often revenue.

A few years of focusing on this line of thinking brought Matt to a pretty lofty question: what’s the fundamental goal of a human life? What are we really working toward? Almost every goal we set for ourselves, he realized, is a secondary goal—something we pursue not for its own sake, but in service of some higher, bigger-picture aim. This ultimate objective, Matt concluded, must be happiness. “Most human activity is difficult to justify with any other goal,” he told Thrive Global.

We make a lot of sacrifices in the name of things we expect will bring us happiness, like promotions, bigger paychecks and corner offices. But research suggests that this way of living might be making us miserable. It’s not the pursuit of happiness itself that’s turning us into anxious messes, though. The reason we’re so bad at feeling good is that, according to the leading minds in happiness research, we as a culture fundamentally misunderstand what happiness is and how it should be pursued. Luckily, science is slowly discovering how to change this.

Let’s the start with the current state of happiness in the U.S. Despite the fact that we live in a nation where the right to pursue happiness is right up there with our right to live and be free, research suggests that we’re not a particularly happy bunch.

In May of this year, the Harris Poll Happiness Index, which measured contentment and life satisfaction in more than 2,000 adults, found that a mere 33 percent of Americans describe themselves as happy.

Even more disheartening is that happiness in the U.S. is on the decline, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which measures social progress through reported happiness. Over the last ten years we’ve fallen from number 3 to number 14 out of 155 countries. The report itself summed up the phenomenon like this: “The USA is a story of reduced happiness.” (Norway, Denmark and Iceland consistently rank at or near the top of the list, in case you’re wondering where the happier folks can be found.)

According to Darrin McMahon, PhD, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of Happiness: A History, the reason Americans can’t seem to get happy is because we’re defining happiness wrong. And of course, that means we’re pursuing it wrong, too.

For most of recorded human history, happiness meant a full and meaningful life, reserved for only the most noble and moral among us—the “happy few,” as Aristotle called them. But the Age of Enlightenment brought with it a new vision of happiness ruled by pleasure, excitement and materialism (often called hedonia).

McMahon calls this shift “the revolution in human expectation” where happiness became something we could find exclusively through money, status and success. Almost 300 years later, we still define it the same way. Case in point: if you look up synonyms for happiness in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, the first word you find is pleasure.

The problem with confusing pleasure and genuine happiness is that when pleasure is the goal, humans are never satisfied. When we finally get the thing we’re chasing—the promotion, the house, the acceptance letter—it either doesn’t feel as good as we think it will or it doesn’t last as long as we hope it will. (We’ve all experienced this, but there’s plenty of research to support it, too.) So we set our sights on something new, always moving the goalpost of success and delaying our elusive joy.

This tendency to never be satisfied and always want more is what evolutionary psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. It means that whatever level of material goods (or what often passes for happiness in the U.S.) we gain, we’ll adapt to it, stop being happy about it and start wanting more. It’s in our nature to always look ahead, says McMahon, pursuing things that disappear each time we think we’ve captured them.

The hedonic treadmill is particularly evident in our pursuit of wealth. So much of our time and energy goes into making money, but researchers have found that income doesn’t predict our happiness very well. In a famous 2010 study, Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman, PhD, and Angus Deaton, PhD, found that happiness increases with income, but only up to about $75,000 a year. Beyond that point, a bigger paycheck doesn’t mean more happiness. Plenty of other researchers have reached similar conclusions; according to research by Tim Kasser, PhD, professor of psychology at Knox College, the U.S. is twice as wealthy as it was 50 years ago, but happiness levels haven’t increased to match.

There’s another approach to happiness that our culture seems to have forgotten though, one that pays greater dividends than our current, misguided path. Sometimes seen as the counterpart to hedonia, eudaimonia refers to the happiness that comes from a life of meaning and purpose and the fulfillment of working towards your potential. And the research suggests that when we prioritize purpose over pleasure, we’re much more likely to find the happiness we’re looking for.

This brings us back to our old friend Matt, the ex-software manager. His full name is Matt Killingsworth, PhD, and his credentials are more impressive now; after applying to Harvard’s PhD program in psychology, he worked alongside Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, PhD to investigate the conditions that lead to a happy life.

Together, they found that people are substantially happier when they’re engaged in the present moment instead of lost in their own thoughts. Our minds essentially toggle between two channels: an internal channel, where our thoughts wander to our last conversation, an upcoming project, our next meal, etc; and an external channel, where we’re focused on the external world and the moment we’re in right now. We spend a great deal of time tuned into the internal channel (46.9 percent of our time, according to the duo’s research), but Killingsworth and Gilbert found that this is when we’re actually the least happy.

“The more we’re able to engage with the present moment and the reality around us,” Killingsworth told Thrive Global, “the happier we tend to be. We’re also more productive and more connected to other people. In fact, just about every outcome I’ve studied looks more favorable when we spend less time inside our own heads.”

Based on their data from more than 5,000 people across 83 countries and 83 occupations, Killingsworth proposed a simple conclusion about what activities bring us the most happiness. Contrary to the idea that pleasure and purpose are on opposite ends of the spectrum, he suggests that we might actually experience the most moment-by-moment pleasure when we engage in activities with meaningful goals, like building relationships, helping others and pursuing personal growth.

“It turns out, when we look at the reality of what actually makes people happy, it’s not superficial pleasures,” Killingsworth told Thrive Global. “In fact, very often it’s making meaningful progress on long term goals. It’s building stronger connections with other people. It ties back to all of these deeper human needs that we have.”

Consider this a classic case of science proving what history, philosophy and religion have been telling us for centuries: if we want to be happy, we should focus on adding more meaning to our lives. We don’t find sustained happiness in our achievements or materialism because, as we now know, that sort of pleasure fades fast. Instead, it’s the activities we do in service of meaningful goals that bring us the most joy.

Twentieth century French philosopher Alain Badiou observed, “A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied.” What we’re discovering now is that just being occupied doesn’t make us happy. We have to be occupied by the right kind of goal. 

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