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Why happiness is difficult to attain (and what you can do to make it easier)

man standing joyously against beautiful landscape

Most people are reasonably happy, but I think an important and useful question is, “Why aren’t we all VERY happy?” Personally I don’t subscribe to the belief that you can only have a certain amount of happiness (and more would have to be counterbalanced by corresponding misery), and certainly most of you reading this have enough money, etc. so why don’t we have more happiness than we do?

I think there are a number of reasons why it’s difficult to increase our happiness, and here they are:

1. Pressure from other people tends to manifest itself as urgent jobs to do, and we tend to do the urgent things before the important things. And it’s the important things that lead to increased happiness. So we think, “I’ll just do that last email before playing with my kids,” or “I need to get to the shops before they shut,” instead of sitting in the sun while it’s there. To manage our time and do some important things amongst the urgent stuff is difficult, but important. When people say they don’t have time to do the things they want to, and which would make them happier, they are really saying that their priorities are putting the unhappy before the happy, and they are losing the war against life’s pressures (they are not doing enough of my five options: saying no, negotiating, delegating, having better systems, and doing some things less well).

2. Happiness doesn’t come from just one thing but from a collection of lots of small things. If it was just one thing we could major on that, but it’s hard to keep track of all the small stuff—a bit of exercise, a bit of reading, a bit of relaxing, a bit of keeping in contact with friends, a bit of learning, a bit of family time, a bit of planning for the future.

3. The balance between achieving and enjoying is hard to get right. If your life is all achievement, you won’t be happy because you wont have enough fun, and too much focus on enjoying means you’ll end up unhappy because you haven’t achieved enough. Getting this balance right needs some planning and some self-discipline which isn’t easy.

smiling mother carrying young son on the beach
Getting the balance between achieving and enjoying isn’t easy…
Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

4. We are naturally lazy. In ‘The Road Less Travelled’ Scott Peck says that laziness is the root of all of our problems and he might be right—laziness today leads to less happiness tomorrow, since both achieving and enjoying need us to overcome our laziness. Have you ever thought, “I can’t be bothered” but then you were pushed into doing something and afterwards you thought, “That was great, I really glad I did that!”?

5. Short-term vs long-term: related to the above, we tend to focus on the short-term problem in hand rather than the longer term picture, so that later we find the picture is not how we want it. My dog has a totally short-term horizon (and is very happy) and most animals are like that. Interestingly, the squirrels that my dog chases in vain each day are burying nuts for the winter, so they are a rare example of planning for the long-term in the animal kingdom. Avoiding the dog gets priority, but they always fit some nut-burying into each day. People are a step up from dogs but are still mostly short-term animals, and this is another reason why it’s hard to be happy in the longer term.

An example of laziness + short-termism being ‘happiness negative’ is that we avoid the hassle of learning a musical instrument in the short-term and then lose out on the longer term enjoyment of being able to play music later.

So the answers to all this are to…

  • Think your way through the tradeoffs between short and long-term, and between enjoying and achieving, in order to optimise them.
  • Use your conscious brains to overcome your subconscious tendency to be lazy and to take the easy options (and to not be self-disciplined or assertive enough).
  • Fill as much of your time as you can with all the small things that add up to your happiness each day—which may require time management and saying no to other things.

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  • This article originally appeared here.
  • Watch our ‘What I’ve Learned’ video with Chris here.

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