Why the Pursuit of Happiness Makes Us Miserable

Never-ending want drives foolish behavior that’s unhealthy for us and the planet

Robert Roy Britt
4 min readAug 4, 2022

Image: Pexels/Engin Akyurt

The pursuit of happiness is deeply woven into our collective psyche, prized by psychologists and pushed by self-help gurus, analyzed in countless scientific studies, and even guaranteed as a right in the Declaration of Independence. So it must be an incredibly worthy pursuit, though toward a goal rarely achieved, given all the pursuing that’s still going on.

Or perhaps, as research indicates, happiness is an ill-defined and elusive notion, its pursuit absurd and even damaging, both to the individual and to the sustainability of the planet as a whole.

Yes, that’s the sad truth.

The pursuit of happiness is ingrained in our minds, and even though it fuels materialism and overconsumption, leading more often than not to disappointment and even depression, we humans keep wanting more, scientists write in the Captain Obvious summary of a new study.

But why does this thing we want so badly so often turn out so badly? Two things:

Happiness depends on evolving expectations. “A positive lifestyle produces a ‘boost’ in happiness but the boost often does not last long and one rapidly habituates to the higher standard of living,” the researchers write in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. In a nutshell, we adapt to amazing and wonderful things, so that they become mundane, expected.

Happiness is measured against relative comparisons. “Beyond the absolute level of what they have, people are often concerned with the difference between what they have and a desired level that they wish to achieve.” Because of all the Joneses out there, no house is big enough, no car cool enough, no new shoes hip enough.

Earth pays the price

These ideas are not new. Variations on the themes go back decades, even centuries. Twenty years ago, in Soak up the Sun, Sheryl Crow boiled it all down to two simple lines:

It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got

But the new study’s researchers — Rachit Dubey and Thomas Griffiths at Princeton University and Peter Dayan…

Robert Roy Britt

Founder/editor of Wise & Well on Medium & the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com & author of Make Sleep Your Superpower amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB