Happiness as overrated

January 12, 2011 | By | Reply More

I recently stumbled upon a book called The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, PhD (2000). The book offers quite a bit of solid commonsense advice. For instance:

– Cultivate friendships,
–  Turn off the TV (“TV reduces personal contentment “by about 5% for every hour a day we watch”),
– Get a good nights sleep, and
– Money does not buy happiness.

Fair enough. Interspersed with the good advice, however, is quite a bit of advice with which I am not impressed. For instance,

Chapter 8: Accept yourself-unconditionally.
Chapter 12: Have realistic expectations.
Chapter 16: Believe in yourself.
Chapter 23: Belong to a religion.
Chapter 26: Root for a home team (a sports team).
Chapter 34 It’s not what happened; it’s how you think about what happened.
Chapter 37: Don’t let your entire life hinge on one element.
Chapter 42 Try to think less about the people and things that bother you.
Chapter 48 Don’t blame yourself (“individuals who think of themselves as the cause of negative events are 43% less likely to be satisfied than individuals who do not).
Chapter 53 Don’t pretend to ignore things your loved ones do that bother you.
Chapter 55 Buy what you like.
Chapter 59: Be your own fan (we need self reinforcement, a belief in ourselves that is strong and unwavering).

Think of the people that you admire most in the world, your heroes, and ask yourself what kind of rules they follow. Do they follow the self-indulgent/personal fantasy/under-achiever rules listed immediately above?  Unlikely, because many of the versions of happiness he describes are actually addictions. 

Most of the people I admire would rather be successful in achieving valuable goals, many of them altruistic goals, than to focus on being happy. Think of excellent parents, who constantly deprive themselves of many of the things that bring them immediate pleasure of happiness, in order to serve the best interests of their children.

My heroes consistently deprive themselves of the short-term trite version happiness promoted by many of the rules in Niven’s book.  They work hard to achieve what most others would consider unrealistic goals, saying no to their personal cravings, focusing on what is important, questioning their own in-group, saying difficult things, even to loved ones, and being self-critical as part of an effort to constantly improve. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Consider great artists. Think of the fictional character, Atticus Finch.  Think of sports heroes or think of anyone else who has achieved where others have tried and failed. What is their priority, to be happy or to get important things done?

Image by Maica at iStock (with permission)

I like being happy is much as the next person, but I think happiness is overrated.  Instead of happiness, we should strive for self-critical satisfaction achieved through hard work.  The short-term shallow happiness to often promoted by Nivens’ book does not forge admirable human beings.  Rather, it makes for overly contented people who sit around feeling good about themselves.  Not that it’s bad to feel good but, as Aristotle said, everything in moderation.

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Category: Addictions, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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