On the pursuit of something other than happiness

Focus by Allan FosterPhoto: ‘Focus’ by Allan Foster

It’s surprising, in a way, that I’ve never really got into self-help, given that I regularly consider my self to be in need of help and rarely suffer from a surfeit of volunteers spontaneously clamoring to provide it. I’d probably attribute it to a combination of snobbery, suspicion and a slow reading speed: when it takes you three months to finish a novel and you really like reading novels, there has to be a pretty strong incentive to stray into other genres. Also, on the few occasions I have been inspired to reach for something that might be classified a self-help book, mostly in relation to child-rearing, I’ve found them frustratingly inefficient – one or two new ideas among 200 pages of padding and waffle – which has only served to harden my suspicion of the ‘self-help industry’ (the readiness of this term to trip off the tongue being a bit of a clue).

But then, about a year ago, not long after my most recent episode of depression, a close friend with some similar psychological traits and a comparable level of cynicism about purported life-changing phenomena and things in general recommended Dr Russ Harris’ book The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, and – ta-da – I had finally encountered my first really helpful self-help book.

The title appealed to me immediately. Many years ago, as a student of philosophy, I spent some time flippering about with the question of what constitutes a meaningful or well-spent (or, if you’re Aristotle, ‘virtuous’) life, and to a degree bought into the notion that, insofar as there might be a central purpose to human existence, it probably relates to some kind of understanding or enlightenment rather than happiness as more commonly construed. (For a while, on the wall of my university bedroom, I had pinned with archetypal student pretentiousness a quote torn out of a weekend supplement from the French actress Isabelle Huppert. I can’t bring it up on Google now, but basically it was a very cool, very French rejection of the notion of happiness as the project of life. I remember it ended with the immortal words:  “I prefer being lucid to being fooled”).

Happiness has also long seemed to me a slippery concept: the tighter you try and hold it, the more it seems to escape through your fingers. While we know it relates broadly to positive feelings, the details of its connections to other related, more concrete concepts, such as jubilance, say, or contentment, seem far from clear. In recent years, social researchers have increasingly begun to talk about ‘well-being’ rather than ‘happiness’, and much work has gone into trying to identify the components of well-being (good health, job satisfaction, and so on) in order to measure and compare the extent to which different sectors of society are achieving it, and the ways in which different policy interventions affect this.

In The Happiness Trap, however, Harris contends that our very focus on these concepts, and the idea (explicit or implicit) that achieving a state of perfect happiness or well-being represents the ultimate goal of human life, can actually be counter-productive.  The essence of his argument is that, in order to minimize our psychological pain and discomfort, we actually need to accept negative thoughts and feelings as an unavoidable and integral part of life, rather than viewing them as obstacles blocking our road to happiness. (As an aside: a very similar point was also the theme of the latest Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out).

Now, clearly Harris is not advocating that we just hold up our hands and accept our sorry lots, abandoning all attempts to solve our problems. (Oh, you’re living in terrible pain and grinding poverty? Well sorry about that, but suffering is part of life, you know…). Rather, he says that there are only two logical courses of action when we’re faced with negative thoughts and feelings: take action to remedy them or try to accept them. When the former is not an option, or comes at too high a price, we should aim for the latter. In practice, however, we too often choose a third, illogical and unconstructive path, of avoidance and denial. Harris asks us to consider how many of our actions ostensibly taken in pursuit of happiness were actually motivated by wanting to avoid negative thoughts and emotions. This question was quite eye-opening for me. Looking back, I realized that some of my key decisions had been driven by fear, not of external threats, but of internal ones; by the desire to avoid potential disappointment, embarrassment or other types of psychological discomfort or pain.

Harris contends that, once we accept that some of our negative, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are an inevitable and normal part of our experience, we can stop struggling against them and expending so much energy on trying to pretend they’re not there. We can stop waiting and hoping for some kind of ‘clean’ state in which doubts, worries, fears and so on have all been eliminated, but instead face up to these thoughts and feelings, see them for what they are, de-mystify them, accept them, make space for them, and act anyway.

I see a parallel to modern attitudes to health, perhaps especially here in the US, where sickness often seems to be received as a shocking personal affront. Might not our tendency to operate under the notion that perfect health is the paradigm and any deviation an aberration in itself cause misery, especially for the millions of people living with long-term, chronic conditions? If we instead accept that it is perfectly common and normal to live without perfect health, it might actually make us feel better about our bad backs and our arthritic knees, not to mention lessening the psychological pain involved in developing a significant health condition, something that’ll come to almost all of us, if we’re lucky enough to live a reasonably long life, eventually.

So, the question follows: if we shouldn’t pursue happiness, what should we pursue?

Harris provides a clear answer: a life lived in accordance with our most deeply-held values. Values are distinct from goals. A goal is a time-limited outcome (‘have a baby’, ‘get a degree’, etc.), while a value is ongoing. Values can come in different forms: a value may, for example, be something for which you have a simple appetite, a good-in-itself from your point-of-view, like love or laughter. A value might also be an attribute that you aspire to possess as a person, such as being open and honest. Whatever the format of your values, what unites them is that they represent the things you really care about; your deepest, truest self.

If we pursue goals that truly align with our most deeply-held values, we can, Harris argues, feel confident and at ease, knowing that our actions are rooted in a genuine, solid underlying rationale. This empowers us to take more risks and to feel less vulnerable to failure: if you go for the promotion and don’t get it, or ask for the date and get knocked back, you might feel disappointed, sad, and so on, but you won’t be burdened by regret or self-doubt – or, crucially, deterred from taking risks and letting yourself be vulnerable again – because you know exactly why you took the shot: it was in line with your most dearly-held, carefully thought-through values. From this perspective, success in life ceases to be a matter of the goals you achieved or didn’t achieve, which – let’s face it – is never completely within your individual control. Instead, success is measured by whether you lived a worthwhile, meaningful life on your own terms, doing what you believed to be right, being who you aspired to be.

The Happiness Trap includes a number of reader exercises, one of which requires you to write a list of your most deeply-held values. I found this task more challenging than it may initially sound: a number of times I wrote something down only to realize, after further thought, that I had captured a goal instead of a value, or that there was actually a deeper, more elemental value underlying the one I’d identified, another level down. It’s an exercise I’d strongly encourage others to try. I’ve re-visited my list often since I first wrote it, to tweak it a little or just use it as a way of centering and focusing, checking I’m vaguely on track. In the hurly burly of everyday life, it’s all too easy to become reactive, led by instincts that may not best serve us while losing our grip on what we really care about and truly value. By focusing in on our values as the guiding principles for our actions and decisions, we may need to accept some pain in life, but we may also find that we ultimately become more fulfilled and more free.


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4 responses to “On the pursuit of something other than happiness

  1. Michael Etherington

    As always, very clearly written. Well done. I haven’t read Harris but will certainly attempt to list my values. One thought did strike me that contentment is a good replacement for happiness. It can consists of holding fruitless worries at bay by concentrating on other day-to-day pleasant happenings. That doesn’t align with the idea of confronting worries, but are they worth it when largely we can’t do anything about them.


    • Alice Reeves

      Thanks, as always, for reading, Michael, and for your comments. I’m not sure that your point is entirely at odds with Harris’ view. He is also in favor of accepting what we can’t change. However, he would argue that it is better to face up to your worries and fears because that is key to allowing you to accept them. In his view, trying to suppress them is usually not completely effective and seeing them ‘out of the corner of your eye’ can make them seem more threatening than they really are. I think he would also agree with your point about focusing on the day-to-day: mindfulness is another big part of his approach, which I didn’t go into in my piece. He distinguishes between the ‘thinking self’, which produces an often negative and unconstructive narrative, and the ‘observing self’, which just experiences in the moment. I have some reservations about the feasibility of mindfulness generally, but I found this distinction useful. He tells us to distinguish between what we’re actually experiencing and what our internal mental “radios” are constantly spewing out, and sometimes to just turn the latter off!


  2. Rachel Etherington

    Brilliantly put, as ever Al. I too thought Inside Out was brave to confront this notion, especially in modern society where we seem to be obsessed with happiness and there remains an enormous reluctance to be honest about how one is coping with life’s vicissitudes, or moreover, its real pain. As someone I know is always cheerfully telling me “life is suffering”…

    One of my values is courage and in line with that is one of the most helpful and profound pieces of advice I have ever been given when deliberating over a course of action one should ask oneself “what would i do if I weren’t afraid”? This often reveals what you truly want to do if you ignored the self-limiting worries of “what if?”, which – as you say – are more often than not related to feelings of personal inadequacy.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and honest posts.

    Ps. In 21st century style I’ve written this on my phone and cannot re-read so apologies if it doesn’t make any sense!


    • Alice Reeves

      Thanks to you too, Etherington Minor, for your comments and other things 🙂 I like that maxim. I think the burden of proof should be on listening to fear or to anything else that argues against us pursuing what we really want, i.e. what’s really in line with our values. Of course, there are some rational fears, but I’m sure they’re very much in the minority for most of us.


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