Is Happiness Overrated?

article photo Person standing at the edge of a serene mountain lake, gazing thoughtfully into the distance, reflecting on the multifaceted nature of happiness and life's balance by Dr. Sam Goldstein

In today's fast-paced world, the pursuit of happiness more often than not, is the focal point of the human endeavor. Be it career choices, romantic relationships, or even buying a cup of coffee, the ultimate goal boils down to attaining some measure of happiness. But do we ever stop to ask: Is happiness overrated? Does our relentless quest for feeling good overshadow other important aspects of human existence? Let’s consider our insatiable need for happiness as humans and its biological and evolutionary roots. I will also share my observations on true happiness.

The Insatiable Quest for Happiness

The yearning for happiness is not a novel concept. Philosophers and theologians from ancient times to modern day have been engrossed in the debate surrounding happiness and its role in human life. But what makes happiness so universally desirable? It's not merely a pleasurable sensation; it's also the emotional high, the endorphin rush, and the ensuing sense of satisfaction. From the pursuit of wealth and social status to the seeking of love and personal growth, our actions are heavily influenced, if not entirely dictated, by our need to be happy.

However, this quest often devolves into a hell-bent drive for immediate gratification rather than lasting contentment. We turn to material possessions, social media likes, or transient experiences to feel instant joy. And in doing so, we ignore the more substantive aspects of life, such as moral integrity, social responsibility, and intellectual growth. These overlooked aspects may not offer immediate delight, but they often provide deeper, long-lasting satisfaction and a sense of purpose that happiness alone can't deliver.

The Biological and Evolutionary Basis of Happiness

Our preoccupation with happiness is not merely a social construct; it has biological and evolutionary underpinnings. From a neurological perspective, happiness often equates to the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals not only make us feel good but also are crucial for our survival. For example, the dopamine rush we experience when eating a favorite food not only makes food enjoyable but also encourages us to eat, ensuring our survival.

From an evolutionary standpoint, happiness serves as a reward mechanism that reinforces behaviors essential for survival. Early humans who derived pleasure from social cooperation, successful hunting, or finding a mate were more likely to engage in these life-sustaining activities when part of the payoff was happiness. This led to not only their survival but also their procreation, passing on these happiness-seeking traits to future generations. In essence, the pursuit of happiness has been ingrained in us as an evolutionary advantage. However, the modern-day interpretation of this pursuit often neglects its original purpose, focusing instead on superficial, ephemeral sources of joy.

My Observations on True Happiness

Happiness is Relative: One of the fundamental truths about happiness is its relative nature. What brings joy to one person may induce stress or discomfort in another. Even for the same individual, the sources of happiness can change over time, reflecting evolving priorities, circumstances, and emotional needs. Understanding the relative nature of happiness is key to avoiding the comparison trap, where we measure our happiness against others', frequently coming up short and feeling inadequate as a result.

Happiness is Fleeting, But That's Okay: The idea that happiness is a permanent state is a fallacy, a product of media marketing primarily designed to sell you something. Happiness comes and goes, just like any other emotion. Treating happiness as your ultimate goal creates unrealistic expectations, leading to inevitable disappointment when the emotional high fades. Recognizing the transitory nature of happiness allows us to appreciate it when it occurs while staying resilient during times when it seems elusive.

Happiness is Only a Part of the Human Experience: While it is a significant component, happiness is not the sole purpose of human life. Equally important are our other emotional states and values such as sadness, which brings depth; challenge, which brings growth; and altruism, which brings a sense of community. Each of these contributes to a rich, multifaceted human experience that a constant state of happiness could never provide. In our recent book, Tenacity, Bob Brooks and I explore these emotions and instincts.

While the pursuit of happiness has biological and evolutionary roots, its modern interpretation often leads us astray from the meaningful aspects of life. Happiness, though desirable, should not be the only focus of human existence. It is relative, fleeting, and only one part of the diverse emotional tapestry that makes up the human experience. So, is happiness overrated? Not necessarily, but it's definitely not the be-all and end-all it's often made out to be. Rather than obsessing over an eternal state of bliss, perhaps we should aim for a balanced life. A life that also makes room for growth, depth, and a sense of community. Perhaps then we will find a way to rein in the seeming chaos of our world today. ◆