Sifting – Chapter 20: Happiness is Not Enough

This posting is part of a series on my book Sifting. If you have not read the previous postings, please visit the menu above (click on Sifting) for a chronological listing of any previous chapters. Thanks!  


Chapter 20: Happiness is Not Enough

Bob: Sift, I’ve been thinking about your comment that happiness is not enough. Why is that?

Sift: As I mentioned, most people think of happiness in the smiley-face sense. It is true that happiness is about experiencing positive emotions; however, there are several reasons why happiness is not enough and why focusing on well-being is a better life strategy. As it turns out, happiness is typically the weakest contributor among many strategies you can choose to create and nurture a sense of well-being.

Bob: Why is that?

Sift: Mainly because of misunderstandings and myths related to the concept of happiness, including what really makes people happy, and how long they can expect the happiness to last.

Bob: Sounds interesting. Tell me more.

Sift: The first insight is that people are not good at forecasting their emotions. They almost always over or underestimate how good or bad they will feel when things happen to them. They also over and underestimate how long the good or bad feelings will last.

Bob: Why?

Sift: When people experience events, especially events perceived as good or bad, they usually focus too much on the event itself and ignore potential offsetting factors that might occur as the future unfolds. One of the classic examples of this relates to lottery winners. They primarily focus on the positive benefits of having all the money and not the negative aspects of attaining sudden wealth.

Bob: I get it. Like not knowing who your true friends are and wondering if people are just trying to figure out a way to get you to give them some money.

Sift: Exactly. And the same thing happens with events that are perceived as negative. Say your house burns down. You might focus mainly on the event – the loss of your home – and ignore all the good things that will happen in the future: friends who help you, getting new things to replace some of the old things you didn’t really care for; and normal life will continue as it always has: things like family get-togethers, time with friends, and other pleasant experiences. Poor forecasting and focusing only on the good or bad event can cause you to misjudge the long-term impact of the event.

Bob: Given my current circumstances, I understand these ideas quite well. When I made a lot of choices to accumulate houses, cars, and other things, I didn’t think much about the offsetting issues of excessive debt or the time and energy it takes to maintain all of those things.

Sift: Let’s talk about those things, Bob. That will help you understand another common misunderstanding related to sustaining long-term happiness. Humans quickly habituate, or adapt, to positive events and possessions. After a short time, any such change is viewed as their “new normal,” and they typically increase their desires and need more to maintain their level of satisfaction.

Bob: It’s like an addiction. You always want more.

Sift: Yes, and if you do not get more, you revert to what is called your “happiness set-point” within a short time. All humans have a natural tendency to revert to a certain range of happiness in the absence of influential or novel experiences. The same thing occurs when you experience positive or negative events. For example, after a breakup with a romantic partner, a promotion, marriage, a job change, getting a new car or house, or suffering a permanent injury, people quickly move back to their happiness set-point. That is one of the main reasons why happiness is not enough in terms of a life strategy.

Bob: Can you do anything about it?

Sift: Yes, you can expand your focus to include the ongoing pursuit of overall well-being. Bob, there are five specific paths, or strategies, you can pursue to increase and nurture well-being. And we can talk about all of them. The pursuit of happiness is just one of the paths; but as I mentioned, it is the weakest contributor to overall well-being and will never be enough on a stand-alone basis.

In answer to your specific question about what you can do about this, you can offset the natural tendency to adapt to events and things that you think will create lasting happiness with variety strategies and appreciation strategies.

Bob: What do you mean by that?

Sift: Proactively work to introduce variety into your life. Find ways to take on new challenges at work. Spend time doing new things with your wife and friends. Get new people involved in your life. For example, if you want to enjoy your house or vacation home more, invite people over to enjoy it with you. In general, find ways to do new things to offset your natural tendency to habituate or adapt to things in your life.

And learn to pause and appreciate what you have. Focus mindfully on things and experiences, rather than taking them for granted. Savor and completely enjoy them by dwelling specifically on how they make you feel. Spend as much time enjoying the happiness you already have. As you do, try to figure out what will make you happy in the future.

Bob: Okay, Sift, you just opened up a real can of worms with your comment about the five paths to well-being. I want to talk about all of those.

Sift: Bob, do you remember when you had to take pre-requisite courses in college? They wanted you to take a lower-level course to prepare you for a higher-level course.

Bob: Yes.

Sift: It would be best if we could cover a few more issues before we talk about the five paths. It would help you make the most of the knowledge when we talk about them.

Bob: Okay, what should we talk about next?

Sift: I think it would be good to talk about launching synchronicity.

Bob: Sounds interesting. Let’s do it.


End Chapter 20

Author’s Notes:

Main takeaway: Go beyond happiness and seek overall well-being.    

  1. Can you think of an event in your life, good or bad, that eventually turned out the opposite of your original assessment?
  2. How can you offset the tendency to adapt to positive things that happen in your life?
  3. Why do you think happiness is not always enough?


 The entire book will eventually be posted on this blog. However, if you want a copy for yourself, or as a gift for a friend, you can find it at this link: Sifting

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