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  • Abby

The Happiness Paradox

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

About a month ago, I had an interesting email conversation with a reader (hey, Eric!). At one point, he said, “What gets me is that I want to enjoy life, yet it seems to enjoy life, we have to do a lot of things that aren't enjoyable, but then bring us joy. Such a weird paradox that I think about often.” And you know what? He’s 100% right.

I spent years of my life hanging out in my bed and aimlessly scrolling through Tumblr and Reddit until 2 a.m. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy, either. I was just… content. I was fine. Mindlessly consuming endless content was fine. It was easy, it took no effort, either mental or physical, it was generally pleasant, and occasionally I’d find something decent and experience momentary happiness.

But it was always a short-lived pleasure. I hadn’t put any effort into that brief encounter that made me half-laugh, and if I was lucky, crack a smile. That feeling leaves just as quickly and easily as it arrives.

A few years ago, I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.* One sentence resonated with me so much that I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram (and this was before we were all posting our entire lives on Instagram):

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

He’s right, and this brings us to the distinction between pleasure and happiness. It’s easy to confuse pleasure with happiness. Eating an entire bag of chips while sitting in bed watching something good on Netflix may be pleasurable, but it won’t make you happy.

I know this sounds weird at first. You like sitting on the couch. You like staying in bed until noon. But you like those things because they’re easy, not because they make you happy. An object at rest stays at rest. Your brain doesn’t want to make things happen because it doesn’t want to put in that effort. It’s content.

Mark Manson said it well when he wrote, “Ask any drug addict how their pursuit of pleasure turned out.” Maybe your source of pleasure isn’t drugs—or maybe it is; I’m not here to judge, only to help. Maybe you’re like me and spend half of your time on the internet watching mildly entertaining videos and reading interesting but ultimately pointless stories by strangers. Maybe it’s video games. Maybe it’s food.

Whatever it is that you find pleasure in, it probably isn’t bringing you happiness. It may bring momentary contentment, but it isn’t going to bring long-term happiness, which is why you can’t seem to get away from it. You go back in order to get another easy dopamine hit.

Don't get me wrong. As long as you’re careful, a little bit of a pleasurable activity now and then isn’t going to hurt. In fact, sometimes there are few things better than enjoying life’s simple pleasures. I’m just as guilty of the occasional k-pop music video binge as the next guy. (Other people do that, too, right?)

But Eric is right. If you want to be truly happy, you’re going to have to put in work. Genuine, long-lasting, fulfilling happiness takes work. It takes a lot of work. Much of that work will be work that you really don’t want to do. But it will be worth it. If you want to be truly happy, you have to put the work in.

Someone recently mused that his friend always seemed so happy and fulfilled by his hobbies, but when he tried to get into something new, it just felt like work. He wanted to know how to “‘enjoy’ it and not feel like it’s work.”

But that’s the thing. It is work, and the fact that it’s work is a large part of what makes it so fulfilling. That happiness high that comes from putting in the effort can’t come from easy things—it’s rewarding because you had to work for it. If you didn’t work for it, it isn’t a reward. By definition, rewards are a result of effort. Happiness is your reward for putting in the effort.

I’m sure at some point in your life, you’ve put in the work. Maybe someone was there making you do it, or maybe you went after it on your own, but I know there is something, at some point, that you’ve gone after and you have put. in. the. work.

You made it happen.

And I’m guessing that you felt pretty wonderful about it afterward. Well, happiness in life works the same way. Knowing that you put in time and effort is a large part of why accomplishing something big feels so rewarding, and why watching YouTube in bed feels so unrewarding.

It’s easy to get caught up thinking that if we could just sit around and watch TV or browse the internet all day, we’d be happy. Those things are easy. We think that we don’t want to put in effort. We don’t want to do any work because we’re lazy. In fact, sometimes we take pride in our laziness.

That isn’t serving you. I’m not knocking laziness completely. As with everything in life, balance is of the utmost importance. But laziness is unfulfilling. It won’t bring you lasting happiness no matter how much you wish it would or think that you like being lazy. That isn’t the nature of happiness.

The evidence is all around you. Anyone with a fulfilling job will tell you that it is a lot of work. Ask any marathon runner—maybe wait until they’ve had a post-race beer or two—how they feel. Aside from maybe “tired,” or “sore,” they’ll probably say “happy.” Finishing a labor-intensive piece of art, setting a lifting PR, successfully playing a difficult piece of music—all of these take work. Getting there may be downright miserable at times. But anyone who’s done these things can tell you that they are rewarding—that the unenjoyable ultimately brings joy.

As far as I can tell, actually working towards something, challenging yourself, and getting to a goal is the best way to bring yourself genuine happiness. It is a bit odd, that things that we don't enjoy end up making us happiest, but by their nature, those things are the most rewarding.

Eric is right. “To enjoy life, we have to do a lot of things that aren’t enjoyable, but then bring us joy.” It’s a happiness paradox.

If you liked this piece and found it eye-opening, you’ll probably like The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson.* I lot of what I said here was influenced by his book, and reading it has certainly shifted the way I view life, work, happiness, and pleasure.

And because I know that there are people out there who like to twist my words, I’m not advocating for working yourself to the bone. You don’t have to be miserable constantly in order to achieve happiness. You just have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes. All things in moderation.

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