The Happiness Paradox

158247149_22bc2a0887_z_smileyfaceContinuing with my experiences and insights from taking the class, “A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment,” researchers describe a paradox of happiness that frequently entraps us. Though people hold happiness as a highly sought after goal—and have for centuries—when making daily decisions we often sacrifice happiness for lesser goals.

The lesser goals we choose often revolve around money and status. Did  you ever purchase something that wasn’t quite your favorite choice, but offered better value for the money? Sure, we all have.

Have you ever purchased clothing that isn’t your favorite for comfort, but provides the image you want? Most of us do these things, making short term choices that sacrifice happiness for the sake of other goals. Yet happiness is our greatest goal, isn’t it? Centuries of philosophers confirm that and current polls reinforce how much we want to be happy.

Why do we make other choices? That’s the happiness paradox.

The answer seems to fall into what Dr. Raj Raghunathan calls devaluing happiness, a catch-all that captures various reasons we often fail to take actions in support of greater happiness.

Though Raj covers several reasons, two in particular caught my attention: (1). Lack of a specific and personal happiness vision (definition), and (2). Medium Maximization.

Happiness is a fuzzy term encompassing many emotions, as such it’s difficult to focus goal setting attention on it. We tend to hope happiness happens to us, but lack a clear definition of what happiness means at the individual level, and how to get it. Goal setting theory is clear that successfully achieving goals requires definition of a specific and measurable end result.

What is Happiness?

To overcome this lack of specificity, each student was assigned the task of defining happiness, as it applies to each of us. Secondly, we made a list of several things in our lives that make us happy. Here’s a summary of my responses:

To me, happiness means the feeling that life is good, that all is right in my world, that I love and am loved, that I value others and am valued, that I am content with the ways my life is unfolding, and that I am aligned with the real me.

Several things that make me happy include:

  • Being peaceful and non-judgmental
  • Being with/talking with my family
  • Seeing my wife’s smile
  • Solving a problem, such as fixing something broken or figuring out how to accomplish something difficult
  • Helping someone else resolve something difficult for them
  • Using one of my strengths, such as insight or judgment
  • Working in a team environment

A useful next task will be to design a habit that reminds me of both what happiness is for me and what things bring me happiness. This should minimize my collapse into the happiness paradox.

Medium Maximization

The second interesting reason we fall into the happiness paradox is something called Medium Maximization. We often forget what we ultimately want in life and chase, instead the medium that we chose to get it, i.e. money, status, etc. The only reason we want money is for what it can get us, but we forget the end goal we wanted and begin chasing the medium. Status is another medium we often chase. Medium Maximization is the tendency to chase the means to happiness and forget all about the original end-goal of happiness. Awareness of this common problem should help me alleviate its impact.

Avoiding the Happiness Paradox

To become happier and to avoid falling into the happiness paradox, decide what happiness means to you as a unique individual, being as specific as possible. Then identify several things that make you happier, helping you reach your definition. Remain aware of the common fault of chasing a medium, such as money, that you’re using to achieve happiness.

Sources and References:

  • Happy face image courtesy Flickr user greggoconnell CC Attribution License.
  • Balloon image courtesy Flickr user Anders Sandberg, CC Attribution Lic. No changes made

4 thoughts on “The Happiness Paradox

  1. “We often forget what we ultimately want in life and chase, instead the medium that we chose to get it, i.e. money, status, etc.” Very good, Jerry. Yes, we don’t come to the table with self-awareness. Choosing wisely becomes difficult.


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