I believe the default framework for thinking about happiness in American culture is detrimental. Fulfillment does not come from pleasure.
There are two types of pleasant emotion that are often conflated: short term happiness, and long term fulfillment.
Crucially, the former is more like lust, and the latter is more like love. One lasts and has a meaningful purpose, the other is ever-fleeting.
A few people have expressed to me before “eating cookies makes me feel happy”, but does it? Do the thousands of cookies you’ve eaten in your life make you any happier at all in this moment? I don’t think so.
Similarly, browsing social media might be easy and somewhat enjoyable right now, but when was the last time you reminisced about scrolling through feeds at 12 am last last Thursday?
I don’t mean to say that short term happiness is worthless, but instead: happiness-lust isn’t the main objective of life.
We have to be careful about mistaking the pleasure of the milestone for the fulfillment of the journey.
Pursuit of pleasure for short term happiness is too often a distraction from greater pursuits.
We sacrifice future fulfillment so we can be fleetingly happy today:
We eat the cookie now, and wonder why we feel lethargic.
We abstain from the momentary discomfort of exercise, and then feel mysteriously depressed.
We flout responsibilities in the present, and bear the time crunch in the future.
We undersleep to get more out of today, but have a headache tomorrow.
We spend money when retirement isn’t ‘now’, and scramble when retirement is ‘now’.
We chase what seems shiny and interesting today, only to break down in the future feeling the void of a meaningless career.
But it’s easy to optimize for the short term! It’s easy to grab for what you can see today and get for certain.
Worst of all, once impatience like so becomes a habit, it’s no longer as easy to temper yourself to await possibly-nonexistent rewards in the future— even though those rewards are usually far greater.
And when everyone around you is a role model for not patiently tempering yourself for optimal long term value, how are you to figure out that there’s a better way?
All reward-based achievements succumb to the hedonic treadmill: we quickly take for granted all one-time changes to our lives.1 They don’t last!
Your next achievement won’t make you permanently and ecstatically happy—because your last achievement didn’t.
The next car, gadget, whatever you buy won’t make you permanently happy, either—did the last?Extrinsic motivations are not the goal!
They may occur, and they may be nice, but they will never satisfy.
If happiness truly were based on absolute, rather than relative, circumstances, why aren’t Americans the happiest people in the history of the world? We definitely have the most…
Note: Yes, happiness is at least partially based on absolute circumstances: constant hunger and danger is stressful. I mean for anyone in a sustainable position.
Without short term pursuits to be primary, what else is there left in life?
Very little, I think— but this makes the question of what’s meaningful very clear—
1) Close relationships with others. Humans are naturally social creatures. Loneliness kills.
2) Pursuit of a higher purpose that helps others. Pursuing something meaningful, truly important, and more important than you. Particularly, a pursuit that suits your strengths.
3) Taking care of yourself and others.
4) Doing anything that increases your ability to strive towards the previous three. Ex: maintaining your health through diet and exercise, improving yourself through learning, etc.
5) Little moments of pleasure. Emphasis ‘little’. The joy of refreshing cool air, of a great view, or of petting a cat. They exist, but they’re not #1.
Fame, excess money, power? All completely meaningless on their own. Fulfillment is found on the inside— or else you’re shackled by reality. (See my thoughts on Stoicism.2)
So, don’t lie to yourself. Don’t let yourself waste another minute pursuing what won’t actually fulfill you.
Worst of all, by stealing your attention, the pursuit of pleasure prevents you from not only striving towards your potential, but from realizing the greater potential of long-term fulfillment.
It’s not that we should ignore feelings of pleasure (no, those are there for a reason, usually 3), but it’s that pleasure isn’t the only focus in life—and it definitely isn’t the first priority of a good life.
It’s a trap. We can do better.
Yes, this is hard. It’s easier to optimize for the shorter term, but only when your habit is already impatience.
1) change the habit— and the experience will get far easier once long term pursuits become your new habit, I promise;
2) be permanently dissatisfied in the pursuit of a distraction that won’t actually fulfill you.
Is this something you want to lose?
Unfortunately, I know of almost no one young that’s strengthened themselves in this way, so be the rare, valuable person that has.
“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.” (Wiki)
Do you have comments on or disagreements with this essay? Please steelman opposing viewpoints, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Posted 2020 November 18, last updated 2021 January 28.
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