Happiness is a lousy guide.

The secret to being happy.

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. | Victor Frankl


I love being happy. And for many good reasons.

When living in a war-torn country as a young adult, happy seemed to be the only alternative to depressed. Later, it became like a true north in leaving a logic-based life for a more heart-felt approach. And though I’ve not always been aware of my preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness, it’s deeply entrenched in me – even down to the filter with which I make decisions, big or small.

The pursuit of happiness has become a guide to a post-modern society.

It’s why many of us get married…”Happily ever after.” It’s also why many marrieds get divorced…”I deserve to be happy.”

It makes some of us quit the rat race to pursue a passion. It keeps others of us trapped in the rate race to acquire the next home, boat, or retirement.

It inspires addictions to pain killers, or to pornography, or to petron and drives others to stay away from such vices.

The pursuit is everywhere. We hear it in our songs and see it in the lives of our celebrities. It’s the filter we make decisions through – no longer between good and bad, but “which choice will make us happiest?”

All this is well and good. Except of course that happiness happens to be a lousy guide.

I, like many, have learned this the hard way. But as our modern observations of happiness evolve, there are more than a couple reasons to elect a new guide.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS MAKES YOU UNHAPPY. Not long ago, sociologists manufactured a situation with a moderate amount of stress and invited two sets of people in to it. The first set, when interviewed, valued being happy above most things in life. The second group didn’t cite being driven by happiness in anyway. Group one, those that made happiness a goal, reported 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about life, & 75% more depressive symptoms.

This experiment is one of many sources that suggest that the higher importance we put on being happy, the less likely it is that we become happy.

HAPPINESS IS FICKLE. According to science, what we feel when we feel happy is actually the release of two hormones, Dopamine and Oxytocin. And though this rush is a beautiful gift to us, it’s also proven to not stick around for very long. Not only are our bodies unable to handle this chemical reaction consistently over long seasons of time, but we eventually fall victim to what scientists have called “Hedonic Adaptation.” In other words, the things that most thrill us in one particular season tend to be short-lived and do little for us in the next.

HAPPINESS IS A BYPRODUCT. Victor Frankl was a good friend and professional counterpart of Sigmund Freud. He also happened to be the only one to refute Freud’s conclusions about the validity of a direct pursuit of happiness. After years of experimentation, he infamously concluded,

It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.

In other words, if you want to be happy, don’t directly pursue it.

The key to finding happiness is to not let it guide you. It’s electing a better, more meaningful guide in life that will create a reason to be happy.

Of course, this felt need for a guide is nothing new. Yes, we’ve currently filled the role with happiness, but we, as humans, have always looked for a guide. As kids, we look to parents or coaches. As adults, we look to leaders or a system of what’s accepted or a plethora of 10 step success formulas.

The red flag that this happiness paradox raises, however, is not about our need to be guided, but rather who, or what, we designate as our guide.

An emotion? Tradition? Your fathers expectations? Barack Obama? Hollywood? Seth Godin? Self-actualization? A combination of them all?

Certainly, we’ve all tried to find our true north in many of these at one time or another. And I’d assume that, in most attempts, the compass inevitably seems to be broken.

But then there are those realities that seem to transcend an ideal or a religion or a government or a leader and offer a very real alternative to be guided by fading emotions or non-personal guidelines in life.

Is there a guide that has proven to be worth giving the place of true north to in your life? And if so, have you seen it create a reason to be happy – as Frankl suggests?

  • Janelle Rafferty

    Not convinced the Victor Frankl model is the right one. I have used his approach of happiness being the result of giving yourself to a cause greater than yourself for the last 20 years, and have found it lacking. I think there is more to it. I believe that we are meant to have joy and happiness in our daily life, and it stems from gratitude. The field of positive psychology is a big thing right now. I recommend the steps outlined in the book, “The Happiness Project,” and the research done by Brene Brown. The steps they outline for real, healthy happiness are very much in line with Christian philosophy.

  • Janelle Rafferty


  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    @janellerafferty:disqus: really insightful comment. And i tend to agree that Frankl’s model, though a step in the right direction, can be lacking. Brene has produced some great stuff. I look fwd to her book.

    Thanks for chiming in!

  • Josh Ness

    Where joy is defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”, if you’re not filled with joy, are you living outside of the fruits of the Spirit? If happiness is a unsustainable chemical reaction, how are the fruits of the spirit even achievable?

  • Elisa Rubin

    You know, Tyler, I have thought long and hard about this one… We go through this life trying to be fulfilled with that “abundant life”, so we have to know what compass to follow, don’t we? And so often what gets preached at us by these know-it-alls, Bibles folded in their hand like a godly taco (!) endorsing their views as spiritual, simplifies things so much! So it is good to question these things. But one problem that I have with the idea of this post is that the sociologists mentioned – maybe unwittingly – arrogantly advocate one life posture as better than the other – when it is not. In other words: I believe that it is an equally mediocre life-posture to NOT seek happiness so that you will not be disappointed. In even different words, the posture of seeking happiness and the posture of not seeking happiness (so you are less likely to be depressed) are simply two different life-postures and there is no hierarchy value attached to either. What is better about not valuing the search for happiness so you’re less disappointed and depressed? That is like saying, I want to do better in the next Music City marathon, so I am shortening it. Or I want to succeed in the effort of jumping that fence, so I will lower it from 3 feet to one foot. Actually, because of who I am and what my own socio-cultural context is and because of what my personality is and because of my past and my own DNA, such life-posture would be sub-optimal – for me. The second issue that I have with this idea is that we cannot do anything half-way scientific in this context of what is universally held to be “better” or “worse” guide – most certainly not a “terrible” guide. The human being has way too many variables attached to him/her… Because what would be a bad outcome of my life-posture guided by searching for happiness would be a more-than-welcome outcome for a poor father of 6 in the mountains of Indonesia who spends all day working in a factory and then all evening planting a vegetable garden, while trying to shoo away the monkeys from the crops that will feed his kids. This is not a hypothetical man. His name is Eugenio.

    Happiness as a guide is such a vague and subjectively constrained concept that it simply cannot be held in my hands long enough to have its pursuit be labeled as a “terrible” guide. I think I know what you mean: the search for that self-serving, volatile and ephemeral fulfillment that stems from what fame and money can bring us is a terrible guide for our lives. But that pursuit applies to a very, very narrow slice of human life, whereas the search for happiness does not. The pursuit of fame and money as a guide does not even cross the minds of most human beings on the planet, so most people hear Frankl and are left wondering why the h** is this “happiness” that I seek such a terrible thing to pursue?…

    I have to disagree with your premise, because for me – and I think for most of us, but I do not want to now start extrapolating universal ideas from my own experience – the pursuit of happiness is a great thing and even when it entails hard, cold cash.. When we do not conform with our financial status quo and we are out there busting our rear-ends so that our children get fed, they are kept warm and with shoes on their feet, we can pay for their education and they don’t leave medical school $150k in debt, we can vacation once a year, with gas in our cars’ tanks and fan belts that can be replaced if thy break, etc.. You know what I mean? It may just be a case of semantics, but it is a very important “case of semantics” when we define something as “terrible” so it needs to be addressed. Actually, when people say “Well… that is just semantics…” I smile to myself and know that they have never studied semantics, so they don’t know that semantics is a BIG DEAL because it is through semantics that humans communicate and especially miscommunicate. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts here and blessings to you and your sweet and beautiful family!

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    @josh_ness:disqus: Great question and I think it perfectly demonstrates the point.

    Though I do think joy and happiness (in this context) are two different things, joy, in the same way, is a “fruit” of something else (the Spirit) – not something to be directly pursued.

    I’d also tend to think that joy, in a biblical context, is a far deeper emotion, feeling, resolve than what we currently call “happiness.” Im not sure that “to have joy in all circumstances” means to feel the emotion of happiness at all times. Without thinking too much on it, I believe it to be a “deep resolve in staying positive” no matter the circumstance.

    I could be wrong. Your thoughts?

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    @elisa, great thoughts here and the time put into them is much appreciated.

    Heres where it very much may be a “case of semantics…” :)

    I’m not hating on happiness in anyway. In fact, I tend to believe that most people (mostly christians) need to value happiness more. However, its both the approach to happiness and the endless amounts of hope we put in it, that Im questioning here.

    As Josh poses below, joy is a fruit of the spirit. In the same way that joy is a FRUIT of something else, so is happiness. The argument is that though happiness is quite valuable to the human life, it’s not obtained by being directly pursued.

  • Nathaniel Durgasingh

    Thought provoking perspective on the flip side to the “pursuit of happiness” and the happiness that we all look to achieve daily. I myself would agree with your sentiments that “If you want to be happy, don’t directly pursue it” because when we look at happiness in that way, it almost seems as though its a job to achieve and not something that comes naturally through many different sources and situations. As always, great read Tyler!

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    Thanks for chiming in @Nathaniel Durgasingh:disqus. Interesting paradox, for sure.

  • CAnne

    “Then she tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her. When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference?”
    -Toni Morrison

  • Josh Ness


    My thoughts exactly. I think that too often Christians confuse joy with happiness, and we disconnect from God’s will due to the fact that we aren’t happy. There’s no way that you should be happy when someone dies, but you could still maintain joy throughout. In the same manner, to pursue true joy would ultimately end up in the pursuit of the Spirit because that is the only source of pure, sustainable joy.

  • http://beingunraveled.com/ K.A. Reedy

    Hi Tyler,
    I find that when I’m trying to attain something—whether happiness, peace of mind, love, etc.—I can’t. Simply by virtue of trying to pursue anything, I’m declaring that I don’t already have it. I’ve heard people say, Everything you’re searching for is already within, and I’ve found that to be true for me. Attaching my peace of mind, for example, to some achievement, some thing, some event to be pursued means that I can’t have peace of mind right now, which doesn’t ring true for me. It’s taken me a lot of conscious effort to find peace and happiness, and it still does sometimes. I don’t feel peace or happiness all the time, but I’ve found many tools that help me look for it in the place it originates—me. :)

    Thanks so much for your blog!

  • Elisa Rubin

    Thanks for your reply. So as I understand, you mean that the issue at hand is the “pursuit” not the definition of happiness. Enough has been studied about the human being and what makes us “tick” to allow us to conclude that we are not all the same. (The more kids we have the more we realize that they were engendered to be different and unique.) One of those differentiating traits is initiative and ambition and being proactive versus contentment with the status quo and the “comfort zone”. My postulation for the day is: the ones who are content with the comfort zone and the ones who are ambitious and pro-active both have the right to exist without being placed at different levels on the moral hierarchic scale. One will not pursue because his personality so dictates and the other will pursue because his personality so dictates..I am a pursuer by nature. I was climbing over backyard gates at age 18 months – so my mom says. I was climbing on tables and bookshelves when I could barely walk. I have been climbing ever since. :) I know that every heartbeat and every breath is a gift from God and I have developed the conscious ability to enjoy the moment, because that is counter-intuitive for me. But maybe just like I am a “climber” and need to make an effort to enjoy today, will you allow me the right to tell the ones who are content with today and do not pursue happiness that maybe they need to be more proactive about pursuing happiness and doing what is in their power to provide better housing, food, transportation, education and vacations for their kids? Unless those needs are met by default, even when not pursued. In that case, our idea of “happiness” is just different.

  • Clarissa Bezerra

    I feel that knowing that life is finite is a powerful compass. It humbles us. The art of living lies in finding the middle way, somewhere in between living like there’s no tomorrow and the other end of the spectrum. “A felicidade acontece nas horinhas de descuido.” Guimarães Rosa
    “Happiness happens in distracted moments.”

  • http://iamcalebcampbell.com/ Caleb Campbell

    Excellent post. In my own life I’ve realized that the only reason I was disappointed and unhappy was because I was thinking so much about myself.

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    @kareedy:disqus: love this KA. There’s certainly a lot to be gained by stopping all the outward striving.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    “Happiness happens in distracted moments.”

    I love this @clarissabezerra:disqus. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    @calebcampbell:disqus: absolutely fair. and i can relate entirely.

    However, the common deduction would lead us to believe that the path to happiness (or meaning) is actually not thinking about ourselves at all – which I think is just as false.


  • http://iamcalebcampbell.com/ Caleb Campbell

    I can see what you are saying. But when I think about why I was made, why I’m here, I realize that I was never made for me. That’s why Jesus says to deny yourself. Why? Because I was never made for me. The only thing He is asking me to give up is the very things I was never intended to be in the first place – such as a self-centered person constantly focused on myself. So if He is asking me to deny myself, it would be in my best interest to do it because He is good and He has my best interest at heart. I believe He wants me to live a fulfilled life more than I even want to live one.

    Bottom line, I can’t deny myself (which leads to a fulfilled life) when I’m constantly thinking about myself. The two are polar opposites.

    I guess it comes down to what we choose as our “more meaningful guide.”

    Ps. I checked out your about page. You have a beautiful family and I’m in love with your dog. I lived in Franklin, TN., for a while when I was training for the NFL. Beautiful area. Blessings, sir.

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    “I guess it comes down to what we choose as our “more meaningful guide.”

    Love this @calebcampbell:disqus. Thanks for chiming in!

    PS. Look us up next time youre in town. My dog is always in need of more attention. :)

  • http://tylerwardis.com/ tyler ward

    “the ones who are content with the comfort zone and the ones who are ambitious and pro-active both have the right to exist without being placed at different levels on the moral hierarchic scale.”

    i love this.

    And in the context presented, I’d agree with you entirely. However, the argument could be made that even when pursuing things like education and vacations for kids – were not directly pursuing happiness. We’re pursuing things we know to create a healthy balanced life.

    All very nuanced and I think we’re on the same page, but love the discussion.