Nathanael Garrett Novosel, January 27 2021

Why It's Difficult to Figure Out What Will Make You Happy

Ahhh, happiness.  It's what people think the whole point of life is.  But happiness seems to be so evasive.  You don't always know what will make you happy, and even if you do then it seems so fleeting.  What is going on here?  Can you truly live happily ever after?  Can you buy happiness?  What even is happiness, and can you define it?  Once you define it, how do you achieve it?  Is happiness the meaning of life?  Well, strap in...we're going to cover all those questions right now.

What is happiness, and why is it so difficult to define?

Happiness is difficult to define because people erroneously see it as a static thing you acquire and sustain forever (e.g., they believe that you can “achieve” happiness) versus what it actually is, which is a real-time (read: temporary/ever-changing) indicator of your direction and velocity with respect to growth.  If you are growing and thriving, you are happy in the sense of life satisfaction.  If you are not (i.e., you are stagnant, being harmed, or have no hope for a better future), you will be bored, listless, angry, sad, afraid, or depressed.

Can money buy happiness?

Money cannot buy happiness because you cannot purchase and own growth.  Growth is defined as improvement over time.  So the only thing money can buy is financial growth (i.e., through investing), asset growth (i.e., through purchasing material things that can support your growth), or experiential growth (i.e., buy buying new experiences like a trip to a foreign country).  The growth makes you happy and the money buys the growth, so money buys things that can make you happy.  Money can also make you happy by in and of itself making you feel safe and secure, so there’s value there.

The reason why money can’t buy a static happiness commodity, though, is that your growth areas are always evolving.  So let’s say you travel for 5 years, and you decide that you’ve had enough traveling.  Buying more travel won’t make you happy anymore, so you have to focus on something else.  So no matter what you buy, there will always be something else to experience or areas to grow in.  So you can’t just buy something and be happy forever.  Happiness is not a permanent thing…and the reason why people misunderstand this is because they misdefine it as we discussed above.

Is happiness the point of life?  Can you achieve it?  If so, how?

Happiness is an indicator, not a goal.  Specifically, your emotions indicate your relationship toward growth.  If you are growing, you are happy.  If you experience harm or loss (the opposite of growth), you are sad.  If you anticipate growth-enabling experiences, you are excited.  If you anticipate harmful experiences, you are afraid.  That’s all emotions are: indicators.  So if you’re seeking to “achieve” or “attain” happiness, you’re approaching it the wrong way because you’re misdefining it as a goal.  The goal is growth.  You should be asking how to attain growth that is meaningful to you because that is what makes you happy.  Happiness is a byproduct of growth, not the goal of life.

Because people misunderstand this, they often turn to drugs or addictions to get the pleasure they think they want in life.  And you can “hack” your emotional indicator, as people do when they take drugs or go to horror movies.  In both cases, your emotional response has nothing to do with your actual life situation.  With drugs, you’re feeling the pleasure you’d get from eating, having sex, or winning the Super Bowl (i.e., growth-enabling experiences), but you’re not actually having growth-enabling experiences.  With horror movies, you’re feeling fear, but you’re not actually in any danger.  Because happiness is an indicator that you can “game” like that, it’s very common that people miss the point of life as they seek the next temporary high.

So if you want to “achieve” happiness, you just need to keep seeking growth opportunities (or fostering them in others).  Happiness is a temporary indicator, and this is a good thing.  If you were permanently happy, you’d never do anything in life (imagine sitting there like a blissful vegetable—not sure why people think that they want that, but I assure you that they don’t).  Happiness (i.e., the non-hacked kind) is feedback that you’re doing something right: socializing, helping people, improving yourself, relaxing after a hard day of work.  You should only feel it when those things are happening.  When you need to do something else, you need to feel something else to motivate you to go do that other thing.  If you were happy all the time, you wouldn’t need to change.

No, Nate, I mean "life satisfaction" and not specific moments of happiness.  How do I achieve that?

If you mean overall life satisfaction vs. specific examples of happiness mentioned above, then overall life satisfaction is achieved when you optimize growth in areas that are meaningful to you.  If you are starting a family, moving up in your career, and socializing a few times per week and those three areas are your priorities, you’ll be generally satisfied with your life.  If you are doing things you hate but working toward growth in areas that you care about, you’ll be satisfied as long as you’re making progress in the meaningful areas (though you might burn out after a while).  If you are doing things you hate and not working toward anything else, you’ll be miserable.

So, how do I figure out what will make me happy, and why is that so difficult?

Well, what will make you happy is when you identify growth-enabling experiences that you deem to be important.  The way you do that is the way you learn anything: experience.  If you don't know whether broccoli will make you happy, you have to taste it first.  If you don't know whether playing soccer will make you happy, you have to kick the ball around a little and see whether playing and getting better interests you.  If it does, then that's great; if it doesn't (or if it does for a while and then doesn't), then move onto the next thing.  You can do research, get other people's perspectives (think: Amazon or Netflix recommendations that say, "People like you bought/watched:"), or simply imagine yourself doing it and determine whether you think that it would interest you.  But you'll only know from experience, and it'll be rewarding regardless of whether you actually like the activity as long as you see the knowledge of whether it interests you as valuable and meaningful in and of itself.  Do that, and you'll feel productive and happy while figuring it out.

The reasons that figuring out what will make you happy is difficult are numerous.  We've already talked about a couple: happiness is temporary and pleasure and happiness are not the same thing.  Let's elaborate and then round out the list:

There are more I'm sure, but hopefully those five examples give you insight into why most people find it hard to know what makes them happy.

Is it really that simple?

Yes, it’s really that simple.  Life is growth-centric, so happiness is either an indicator of how you’re growing in one area at the moment or an overall assessment of whether you’re satisfied with how you’re developing across all growth areas over time.

Best of luck finding what matters to you and going after it, but note that you will never find it if you think it’s a destination you’ll reach that’ll be permanent.  Growth is never-ending, so you’ll never be done working toward goals that will make you happy.  There will always be another goal after the next one you reach, so learn to enjoy life and the process as well as attaining your goals, and you'll find both happiness in the moment as well as overall life satisfaction.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


Previous If There Is No Definitive Answer as to Why You're Here, Why Keep Going?
Next Finding and Strengthening Meaning During the Pandemic