The Paradox of Happiness: Why Desiring More Makes Us Miserable

A foundational idea in modern society is that we all need to strive for more. You can see this everywhere, from movies, books, articles, to the way people speak in private.

We often say something like, I want to be.. smarter, more successful, better, faster, etc. We’re always thinking about some kind of future moment when we will have more of whatever we’re after. More money, status, respect, love.

Many of us really believe that our desire for more is what makes us happy. The more we strive, the happier we become—whether during the pursuit, or when we accomplish our goals.

The truth is that more things will not make you happier. In fact, I believe that anything beyond having enough can only destroy your happiness. That’s because chasing desires is an endless pit that can really harm you.

In the spirit of another Stoic, Epictetus, who said that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants,” let’s look at ways we can make sure we have few wants.

Tell someone you’re grateful: This is a more effective strategy than keeping it to yourself. When you only think of the things you’re grateful for, the feeling of gratitude hardly sticks. But when you tell someone you’re grateful for the relationship you have, whether that’s a friendship, romance, or in a professional setting, you also make others feel good.

Have a plan B and C: When you think you need something, you become dependent on that thing. Let’s say you think you need to get a promotion or a new job, you identify your self-worth with that job. But as the Stoics knew, we hardly ever get what we want. That’s why it’s important to have multiple backup plans. Never depend on a single job, person, goal, and so forth. If something doesn’t work out, move on to something else.

Do things you actually enjoy: This sounds obvious, but how often do you do things you don’t enjoy? If you have a job you don’t enjoy, you’re doing that for the majority of your time. Not a good situation to be in. Optimize your life for inner satisfaction. Find joy in what you do. That doesn’t mean you should chase pleasure. You can also get a sense of inner satisfaction when you do a job well. No matter what the job is.

Live simply: We all get used to everything. When you upgrade your lifestyle, you get used to it and anything less than what you have will feel like torture. The best way to avoid the hedonic treadmill is to never get on it. Live simply, no matter how much money you have.

Stay tough: We can make life so comfortable that we don’t even have to get out of the house to live well. You can earn a living from home. You can work out at home. You can turn up the heat when it’s cold. You can order any food you like. But comfort makes you soft. And life is hard. So it’s better to be hard as a person.

Happiness is not an external event or process. It’s a by-product of living a good life. When you slow down and actually focus on the things that give you inner satisfaction, you realize you already have everything inside you to be happy.

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