4: A recipe for happiness


Many of us see happiness as the ultimate goal of life and pursue it relentlessly. However, this often leads to dissatisfaction and distress. Could it be that the pursuit of happiness prevents its attainment? Is there a way for us to flip the script and achieve the joy we seek?

Reading the recipe backwards

The idea that happiness is a goal to be attained is now commonplace, and is even written into the founding document of a country you may have heard of. Despite such august endorsement, many find the ships of their lives dashed upon rocks of disappointment even after spending many years in pursuit of this end. I believe this is because we have the idea precisely backwards: happiness is not a goal to be pursued, rather, the pursuit of a goal is happiness.

Let’s repurpose a cliche to make it easier to talk about these two ideas (don’t worry, we’re practicing newtrifaction here). The first could be called the “destination” concept of happiness, while the latter could be called the “journey” concept of happiness.

Emotional tourism

So, why doesn’t the “destination” view of happiness satisfy? In a word, change. Happiness is usually thought of as a feeling or else a more general state of affairs of a person’s life or experience. However, even the most steadfast, disciplined person experiences changes of mood, character, and circumstance over time. This makes happiness a moving target. It lingers only for a time and eventually passes away, even if we manage to arrive at the “destination”.

Of course, making one’s life goal something as ephemeral as a feeling is a recipe for disappointment. For one, in the best case, one attains happiness then inevitably loses it to change and arrives back at square one. Such an experience gives rise to self-doubt and perhaps doubt about with others as well. Similarly, such loss can lead to anger and a desire to point fingers - neither of which is much like happiness.

There is some hope, however, for those who wish to retain the “destination” idea of happiness: drugs. [1] Drugs provide reliable access to a wide range of emotional and kinesthetic destinations, including euphoria and feelings of well being. Fortunately for tourists, tickets are available at the local doctor’s office.

But, suppose you’re a masochist and would prefer your happiness to come with a challenge and not a receipt - what then? Then you take the “journey”.

Happy accidents

As we said, the “journey” view of happiness holds that the pursuit of a goal is happiness. While mostly correct, that’s not quite right - pursuit alone isn’t enough. Endlessly pursuing an impossible goal is as sure to bring unhappiness as making happiness a “destination” (unless your travel agent responds to “Doctor”, of course). Rather, happiness is a byproduct of working toward a goal that is, at least in principal, attainable.

Setting attainable goals requires earnest self-knowledge, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s focus on why working toward goals produces happy accidents. That’s right, happiness is an accident.

Since I’m using this word in an unusual way, please allow me to clarify. Happiness is an accident in the same way a chance meeting with an old friend is an accident: the meeting arose not by intent, but through a series of unrelated events occuring independently of each other. Yet, here you are, enjoying this happy accident, catching up with your friend.

How is it the same with happiness? The similarity lies in the disconnect between the goal pursued and the feelings that arise from the pursuit. Whatever goal you set your mind to, whether that be mastery of a skill, weight loss, or counting to 1 million uninterrupted, happiness may arise from working toward it. In other words, happiness is unrelated - or accidental - to the goal itself.

This throws the silliness of setting happiness as a goal into stark relief. You cannot work toward attaining happiness any more than you can work toward meeting an old friend by chance. Accordingly, there is little sense in getting down on oneself about failing to achieve happiness, as controlling chance is well beyond human power. On the flip side, setting and working toward attainable goals is very much within human power and so responsibility for such falls squarely upon the shoulders of each of us.

There are a number of ways working toward goals can produce happiness. Enough, in fact, to merit their own forthcoming post. [2] In the meantime, let’s revisit our recipe for happiness now that we’ve explored some of the “science” behind it.

Don’t forget the salt (and pepper)

So we’ve read the recipe backwards, considering happiness to be the pursuit of a goal rather than a goal itself. However, we’ve neglected to mention two key ingredients that may go without saying, as salt and pepper often are, since they are “to taste”. These ingredients are “yes” and “no”.

The meaning behind these “ingredients” is simple: the attainment of any goal requires that we affirm some things and refuse others. For instance, weight loss entails saying “yes” to healthy foods and regular exercise, and saying no to junk food and sloth. Similarly, counting to 1 million uninterrupted entails saying “yes” to each number in order and “no” to just about everything else. Easy.

Or not. Like many of the most valuable counsels in life, this one is simple, not easy. In fact, many people waste a lot of time seeking complicated programs, formulas, and killer apps for achieving all manner of goals, including happiness of the “destination” variety. Often, this is just a way of procrastinating and avoiding the simple, but difficult, work that needs to be done.

In other words, this talk of “yes” and “no” is just fancy way of saying sacrifice. Successfully reaching a goal inevitably requires giving up some things in favor of others. So, and I hate to break this to some of you, you have to abandon FOMO. [3] If you want reach any goal, even “destination”-style happiness, for that matter, you will have to miss out on some things.

But take heart! We are always missing out on things and this is a good thing. Why? That we cannot help but miss out on something in any given moment means that we have more possibilities than we can ever possibly realize. In other words, we are alive and not dead - a condition which entails decidely, uh, fewer possibilities.

A maxim with a bow

We’ve covered a good bit of ground, but fortunately for us this thought has already been tied up neatly into a nice little maxim by one Friedrich Nietzsche: “Formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal…” [4]

Oops, it seems I’ve forgotten an ingredient - the “straight line”. What a happy accident for you, dear reader. My neglect has yielded a possible goal for you to leap into if you so choose: to grasp the role played by this “straight line” in our recipe for happiness.


[1] Sex and rock ‘n’ roll are also candidates, but sex isn’t generally available by prescription and rock ‘n’ roll could use one - yerba mate just ain’t cuttin' it.

[2] And the wind cries, “Spinoza”.

[3] “Fear Of Missing Out” for those who, like me, live under rocks. Ah, damp soil…

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 2003.