The Paradox of Happiness

by Joakim Gustin - Dec, 2020

As human beings we seem to live in a constant struggle between desire and contentment. How many times have we not heard conflicting advice such as “Be happy with what you’ve got”, and at the same time pursue progress in every aspect of life? And since life at the most basic level means striving for survival, being satisfied seems to contradict our DNA.

The concept of “the knowledge of enough”, or simply contentment is to be found all across human cultures and religions, and probably for good reasons.

“It doesn’t get any better than this”

- Joakim Gustin

I’ve told my closest ones for years that my life motto is “it doesn’t get any better than this”, in some kind of (strange?) attempt of nudging me towards this rumored contentment. Indeed, this statement depends a lot on how you say it, but it’s not meant to be said in a sense of giving up.

Instead it comes from me meditating and reflecting over that I’m probably right in the middle of the time of life that I will later consider “the golden years”.

Being married with 2 young kids, most things in life still feel like raving progress. My days are filled with huge, important tasks like figuring out how to be a good parent, gain a promotion at work, or planning to move to a new (bigger) house. There is simply plenty to look forward to, but do I really appreciate this time enough?

And it’s right here it all starts to feel like a paradox to me.

It seems like dreaming about, or even planning, a bright future puts us in a very happy mood, but where is the appreciation for what we’ve already got? Daniel Gilbert even suggests in his book “Stumbling on happiness” that we might be the most happy dreaming about something, not when actually getting it.

On the opposite of the spectrum, being depressed might be defined as “the inability to see a positive future”, which also seems to suggest that outlook (positive or negative) is key to how we feel.

But spending too much time contemplating what might come is dangerously close to at least two things:

The first one being that as humans thinking about the future, we seem to have a natural tendency to worry. That anxiety was probably a superb skill for survival a couple of thousand years ago, but living in the 21st century, where most people have unprecedented luxury (food, shelter, health care etc.) those feelings are most of the time unproportional to the actual “dangers” we face.

Another anxiety of thinking too much about the future, is that it puts too much emphasis on what you don’t have, making it so much harder to be happy with what you’ve already got.

In both these cases, staying in the present is probably a very effective way of reducing that anxiety.

So does the theory of contentment then contradict this notion of dreaming up our happiness? I don’t think so. I think, as humans, we will always tend to strive for more. And that doesn’t seem all bad, since it probably makes us happy. 

But balancing that desire is probably one reason why many cultures and religions have made it a virtue of desiring the opposite, simply because we always need to nudge ourselves in that direction.


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