The internet and your local bookstore are absolutely chock full of happiness advice. Yet look around at your circle of friends and the country at large. Would you say, in general, that we're all getting happier thanks to all these articles and books?

If your knee-jerk response is no, science backs you up. While interest in positive psychology is soaring, every objective measure suggests happiness is flatlining or declining. What's going on?

One part of the answer probably is that our society has a bunch of features, like inequality, social isolation, and a lack of policies that make balancing work and family life less stressful, that make it hard to be happy. But according to renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his work on unconscious biases, there's another big reason so many of us aren't all that happy--we're not trying to be.

The difference between happiness and life satisfaction

Wait, what? Who on earth doesn't want to be happy? Kahneman's contention sounds crazy, but when you hear his complete comments as part of an in-depth discussion on the always fascinating Conversations with Tyler podcast (hat tip to Quartz), the idea that happiness might not be the biggest goal for many of us starts to make a lot of sense.

Kahneman draws a distinction between happiness, the momentary joy we feel when we do something pleasant like eat chocolate or hang out with friends, and life satisfaction, the feeling of contentment we experience when we look back at our lives with a sense we've accomplished something consequential.

The host of the podcast, economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, kicks off the discussion by noting a recent scientific study Kahneman did with colleagues that showed people really enjoy hanging out with friends. Why don't we do more of that then, Cowen wonders?

"I don't think that people maximize happiness in that sense," Kahneman responds. "They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness."

Take the example of friends. Yes, we love them, but we also all know that when we're trying to do something hard and meaningful like start a business, train for a marathon, or raise a newborn, these relationships tend to fall by the wayside. That's because we often feel accomplishing these big goals and then looking back at them with satisfaction is more important than the happiness of hanging with friends. Memory, in other words, trumps momentary pleasure.

"Happiness feels good in the moment. But it's in the moment. What you're left with are your memories. And that's a very striking thing -- that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it's with us," Kahneman says.

Balancing the moment and the memories

This all means that chasing happiness can only take you so far in your search for the good life. Certainly there's such a thing as too much striving and not enough enjoying. In some circles (I'm looking at you, super ambitious Inc.com readers) the focus is relentlessly on checking off goals. That tends to kill relationships and joy and is definitely not the path to the good life in any form.

But Kahneman highlights that the opposite is also true. There is such a thing as too great a focus on happiness, which can crowd out a longer-term focus on life satisfaction. That approach is also probably not going to get you where you want to be.

Practicing gratitude, mindfulness, exercise, and kindness, as all the happiness merchants suggest, is a good idea. But it's only part of the picture. Most of us don't just want to feel good in the moment. We want to do stuff that matters, so we can look back on our lives with satisfaction. And sometimes doing that means sacrificing some happiness.

That's not just OK. Done in moderation it's actually smart.  

Published on: May 16, 2019
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