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3 Surprising Things We Mistake for Happiness

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What is happiness really and how do we find it? Here are three things that we mistake for true, authentic happiness.


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February 23, 2016

I was getting a haircut recently, reading the fabulous magazines I generally avoid, because they are aesthetic land mines for the budget-conscious: open one and your wallet tends to blow apart. One of these magazines featured interviews with two famous actresses. They caught my attention because both gave readers the same sage advice: “Don’t waste a minute being unhappy.”

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Just what kind of happiness are we talking about here? It’s a critical question for anyone who seeks well-being. The key is understanding the things we mistake for true happiness—and not getting them mixed up with the real thing.

1. We mistake mood for happiness

Asked how content they are with their lives, people often rate themselves happy or unhappy depending on what’s affecting them at the moment. For instance, in a study led by German psychologist Norbert Schwarz, researchers randomly phoned men in a working-class suburb shortly after the broadcast of the international soccer championships. Germany won the first match; the second was a tie.

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Researchers initially queried the men about the quality of the television coverage, then asked if they could pose a few questions unrelated to the game. They asked the men to rate their happiness with life as a whole, as well as their satisfaction with their income and work. Those interviewed after Germany won the soccer game rated their global well-being several points higher than those interviewed after the game ended in a tie. An upbeat mood translated into a happy life.

2. We mistake comfort for happiness

Girl Full of Joy

Photo by Mimagephotography/Shutterstock.com

Researchers have also found that when they direct someone’s attention to a specific domain of life, people often make comparison-based evaluations. In a separate experiment by Schwarz, interviewees thought they were taking a visual imaging test. An apologetic researcher told one group that due to a shortage of space, they had to conduct the test in a maintenance room. The room was dirty, smelly and overheated, with poor lighting. Another group took the test in an office furnished with comfortable armchairs and flowers.

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After finishing the visual exercise, subjects were asked to complete a survey that included questions about campus housing and their overall happiness. Those tested in the pleasant environment rated their lives slightly happier than those who took the test in the uncomfortable room. But those in that uncomfortable room rated their campus housing better than those in the pleasant office—indicating they were comparing their dorm rooms with the immediate dank surroundings.

Faced with the thorny task of answering, “How happy are you?” we tend to shortcut to current mood as a barometer. Happiness is a soccer victory, a newborn puppy, a Porsche, scoring your size at a Nordstrom shoe sale. This is clearly a spurious method of evaluating our lives as a complex whole.

3. We mistake desire-fulfillment for happiness

Isn’t happiness really about desire-fulfillment? Julia Annas, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona and author of “The Morality of Happiness” (Oxford University Press), finds this definition troublesome. We can’t define happiness in terms of getting our desires fulfilled, she says, because they may be based on addiction, obsession or plain old faulty reasoning. Our desires may also be warped by social pressure, compelling us to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t know, as the old adage goes.

So, what is happiness really?

When Aristotle addressed the topic of happiness, he used the term eudaimonia. It has been translated from the Greek as “happiness,” but is more closely related to the idea of “flourishing”—creating a successful life over time. Eudaimonia is not about our state of mind or our feelings. It’s about taking action and is based on recognizing and moving toward a larger purpose in life. For Aristotle, happiness is about doing things—doing them to the best of your ability, doing them with excellence as a goal.

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In a materialistic nation that claims happiness as an unalienable right, I take great comfort in Aristotle’s definition of happiness. Because frankly, I find long-term flourishing demands a great deal of short-term, well, unhappiness—at least if you go by the smiley-face definition. Achieving eudaimonia demands difficult things, like taking the time to understand your values and your purpose in life, making concrete goals and tracking your progress toward them. And throughout the process, it means finding the discipline, hard work, patience, persistence, faith, creativity and sense of humor to achieve them.

So, yes, don’t waste a day being unhappy. Just know that sometimes, what makes you happy is not what makes you flourish.