Happiness is Bunk

Sometimes while sipping a tonic of cynicism I wonder if our notion of happiness is just a marketing campaign dreamt up to sell laundry detergent and tickets to a certain mouse infested theme park. Companies tease us with the chimerical feelings we will have once we buy their product, so we buy, then get bored, and buy again.

Ergo: stuff ≠ happiness

Photo Courtesy of Brenna Richardson © 2014

Photo Courtesy of Brenna Richardson © 2014

And what is happiness anyway? A feeling? Like when a kid gets a pony for Christmas? Those delicious palpitations of early love? A hammock and umbrella drink? Is happiness nothing more than your own privately manufactured endorphin opiates tickling your neural receptors in a particularly pleasurable way?

Some of these sensations can be reproduced through chemistry, of course, though not all chemicals are equal. The way you feel after a long run is much better than the feeling you have after sucking down a double chocolate espresso milkshake, even if chemical reactions are responsible for both. And while antidepressants work wonders for people whose internal chemistry is out of whack, there isn’t a pill in the world that will make you happy. People looking for chemically induced happiness become addicts. Addicts are unhappy by definition.

Ergo: chemistry ≠ happiness.

Probably my unexamined/default definition of happiness has to do with climbing to the next level of success in my career. Just a few more articles published, a book or two selling well, then I’ll be good. Right? The problem is, as thousands of ‘successful’ people attest, it doesn’t work. If success begat happiness all celebrities would be completely sane without meltdowns, racist rants, or mistresses.

Ergo: success ≠ happiness

I came across a proverb recently:

For the despondent, every day brings trouble;

for the happy heart, life is a continual feast.

Noted, I don’t normally fall into the ‘happy heart’ camp. I wonder, though, if happiness has more to do with my state of mind than anything else. Maybe I have been happy all along and I just didn’t know it? (clap clap) Can you choose to be happy?

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and neuroscientist who survived a Nazi death camp, found that the people who survived the longest in the death camps were the ones who refused to give up the idea that their existence was meaningful. He argues that meaning, even the search for meaning, rather than trying to be happy is what makes life worth living. He is famously quoted as saying, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

Relying on outside factors to induce happiness is a never-ending waiting game. People who are miserable before they win the lottery are miserable again not long afterward. People who are obsessed with their own happiness –or lack thereof– are narcissistic and no fun to be around.

Maybe our notion of happiness is wrong. If happiness is more stuff, better prestige, or an endorphin rush then happiness is bunk, because it doesn’t work to its desired end.

How about, instead of groping around in the dark for something to give you an emotional contact high you throw yourself into something meaningful? Help somebody. Go to bed tired, wake up sore, all for someone else. Who can’t pay you back. Who you have no obligation to help. Who will never know what you’ve done.

Life is a continual feast, if you’re giving the food away.



Joshua Rigsby is a writer, tea-drinker, and planet 9 enthusiast based in Southern California.


  1. It isn’t often in these times that someone like you comes ’round, reminding us that running after some thing is in the end a chimera; that running after some one, with goodness in our heart, is what life’s all about. Thanks, Josh.

    1. Joshua Rigsby (Post author)

      Thanks Patrick!


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