The Problem With Happiness


In an interesting post on the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz argues that happiness is overrated:

…when we seek happiness as the ultimate state, we’re destined to be disappointed. Absent unhappiness, how would we even recognize it? If we’re fortunate, happiness is a place we visit from time to time rather than inhabit permanently. As a steady state, it has the limits of any steady state: it’s not especially interesting or dynamic.

He goes on to talk about how our desire for happiness is derived from our impulses to avoid pain and to seek gratification, and the problem with taking those impulses too far:

But it also turns out that pain and discomfort are critical to growth, and that achieving excellence depends on the capacity to delay gratification.

When we’re living fully, what we feel is engaged and immersed, challenged and focused, curious and passionate. Happiness — or more specifically, satisfaction — is something we mostly feel retrospectively, as a payoff on our investment. And then, before very long, we move on to the next challenge.

What this boils down to is that we need to be willing to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones if we want to continue to grow and expand our skills. The problem is not being happy, the problem is believing that we should always be happy and never feel discomfort.

This doesn’t mean you should walk around looking for reasons to feel upset and depressed and it’s not a stand against having a generally positive outlook; there is a lot of power in a positive attitude. What you should instead take away from Tony’s article (or at least it’s what I took away) is that you need to be willing to experience the highs and lows, to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and to never be content with what you’ve accomplished. As he eloquently puts it:

Express your joy, savor your good fortune and enjoy your life, but also feel your disappointments, acknowledge your shortcomings, and never settle for happiness.

Enough said.