The Pursuit of Happiness: Pitfalls, Traps and Perils

March 01, 2014

thehappinesstrap_01    Is the pursuit of happiness on your mind most of the time like it is on most people’s? Does it ever slow down?

We know that it can stop… but only for a fleeting moment. This is what we hustle for in life.

Prof. Zygmunt Bauman once said “On that track leading to happiness, there is no finishing line. The ostensible means turn into ends: the sole available consolation for the elusiveness of the dreamed-of and coveted ‘state of happiness’ is to stay on course; as long as one stays in the race, neither falling from exhaustion nor being shown a red card, the hope of eventual victory is kept alive.

Judging by the number of similar quotes about happiness available on every social network site, most people want and dream of happiness. It is understood and widely accepted that happiness is a good thing and something to be cherished. But how this happiness is manifested is the subject of great controversy. Immanuel Kant defined it best when he said: “The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills.

There are many models of happiness. Aligning oneself with one model means leaving out the others, which is a one of the brutal things about our existence. In our contemporary, liquid culture – where we are made to believe that it is highly desirable to make choices, change our directions and alter the course of our life – it is probably more important than ever before to define and understand the various models of happiness.

Happiness, in a psychological sense (need?), is a state of mind that is characterized by “life satisfaction, pleasure, or a positive emotional condition” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Many popular books on happiness talk about the concept in terms of mental states, such as mentioned above. The goal is to make oneself “happy” or “happier”.

Happiness = Capital

Happiness, as a worth or value, is more about doing well, benefiting from one’s good fortune and flourishing. It seems that happiness as value or capital is more complicated in our modern times and more likely to confuse us.

I begin each coaching relationship with a very detailed Values Assessment (based on Tim Brownson’s Values Elicitation process) wherein the new client is asked to provide her 8 core values and 8 anti-values. These are later ranked in order to provide a greater sense of clarity for the client in pursuit of their goals.

Happiness almost always makes the list of the client’s core values. If it does not initially appear on the person’s values list, the absence of happiness will inevitably come up later on in the process.  Subsequently, alleviation of unhappiness (anxiety, fear, suffering, depression) underlies most clients’ concerns and challenges.

This creates a great opportunity for the client to define her or his targets in terms of achieving happiness. Usually, in the beginning, the effort seems beyond the person’s reach, as there are endless varieties of uncertainties, beliefs, as well as social, cultural and economic pressures that often confuse us while, at the same time, demanding of us to make choices. Making the effort is more about the discomfort or anguish of happiness than it is about comfort or delight.

So, what are some of these discomforts of happiness in today’s world?

One of the more obvious anguishes of happiness relates to one’s authenticity and autonomy.  If we blindly follow, or uncritically accept, certain oppressive values, we inevitably invite unhappiness in the form of escalating anxiety. Our modern society of consumerism, with its relentless drive for new products, labels, and experiences, is a source of spiritual discomfort for many. The variety of new offerings and the speed at which they are introduced to the market have the ultimate effect of magnifying social inequality in a society of so-called “equals”. In modern America, we are taught to have the right to consider ourselves to be equal to everybody else – except enormous differentiations in political and economic powers make that equality virtually unattainable. A client who was expressing her anxiety about her retirement fund recently illustrated this lack of autonomy to me. She said: “I am bombarded with this idea that we all have to have $2M dollars {in the retirement account} – and the idea seems overwhelming.”

State of Happiness versus Pursuit of Happiness

Since Aristotle, people have believed that happiness is a continuous state of being achieved by the possession of good birth, good children and friends, as well as health, beauty, athletic strength, fame, honor, virtue and plenty of good luck. Once attained, happiness is supposed to last for the rest of life and things would always remain the same. The rule was that things would last.

Today, however, “the state of happiness” has been replaced with “the pursuit of happiness”. Happiness as a state of being, where nothing is being chased, hunted or tracked, sounds very suspicious to most of us today but is perfectly normal to the children playing with their toys. The topic I wrote about in my post called Life is a Toy Box. The pursuit of happiness implies a constant quest for satisfaction that is derived from overcoming obstacles, problems and jumping over hurdles. In the economic sense, for example, the pursuit of happiness translates into the manufacturing of desires and wants, as opposed to the satisfaction of needs.

In the psychological sense, the chase for satisfaction is a trap that leads to a great deal of confusion, turmoil, mood swings, emotional instability, as well as addictions of various sorts. When we look around, we see masses of people attempting to assembly transient pleasures – new IPads, IPhones, video games, bigger houses, second spouses and new global markets. We also shape our lives according to other people’s opinions on how to be more successful, richer and more popular. We crave personal recognition for ourselves, and perhaps even more intensely for our children. Paradoxically, we are acutely aware of this state of affairs as it is the topic of many movies, radio and television programs, and dinner conversations among friends. We are concerned with the world of hedonism and the corresponding psychological in-balance, yet we see the world injustices as detached from our own personal problems.  We convince ourselves that we just cannot do anything about it. This detachment allows us not to assume any guilt for this state of affairs, yet we feel increasingly more and more anxious. Anxiety is escalating as our sense of self weakens. Many of us desperately try to repair ourselves by seeking sympathy or approval and approbation in the eyes of others. All such attempts are aimed to offer us psychological security.

We put a lot of value on security, which seems to be another one of the perils of happiness. Our subconscious constructs the world as a world of values. And value, by its nature, is always outstanding, and ahead of us.  So our current state of matters cannot give us satisfaction, joy or serenity.

Security, as the value ahead of us and possessed by others, but not us, is tricky and fiddly because we soon realize that we may never be in a position to acquire it. Just ask the person who does not have the 2 million dollars in her retirement account, or anyone who has tried to find security in love or in relationships with their partners, friends or even children.

To counter-act the realization that the value of security may not be attainable to us, and in order not to feel devalued, we proceed to distance ourselves from the said value. Feeling deprived, we search for methods to alleviate our condition and build ourselves up. Constructing a sizeable amount of ambivalence about the value of security helps, transfer love emotion to anger emotion helps too, as does shopping too much, drugging and drinking, at least for a while. Professor Bauman postulated that in the modern times the craved-for security rebounds as craving for self-esteem, self-confidence and recognition, even if the methods used are more likely to hurt than to help us get it.

Our modern version of happiness is well summarized by the character DJay from the movie Hustle & Flow (written and directed by Craig Brewer) who says: “You know what they say, everybody gotta have a dream“.

What is the alternative to hustling for happiness?


9 Comments. Leave new

Thank you for this enlightening post! It gave me a lot to think about, especially around what the word “happiness” really means. I believe I am most “happy” when I feel like I’m progressing in any or all areas of my life. Rather than it being a goal to reach, I think that we can find happiness through the process…a sense of enjoyment through living “in the present” each day.

It was really interesting to see how our values shape our experiences as well. Thanks again for sharing!


Thank you Robin for your thoughtful comments and especially the one about the value of the present moment.


Very thought-provoking and a very popular topic in today’s culture.
Thank you for providing some food for thought for me today … I am not sure that there is a ‘secret’ to happiness, but one can generate conditions under which it is more likely to occur (e.g., like simplifying one’s life for example, practicing forgiveness). For me, happiness is a state of being, it is a choice, and it can be generated. Thank you for this blog – I really enjoy it.


As you said, “happiness” is a very popular topic in our modern times. Sometimes I wonder if it is not too popular especially in the context of the “pursuit” of it rather than a state of being, which you indicated your leaning toward. Glad to have received your contribution. Thank you.

Lyndah Malloy-Glover
March 12, 2014 7:53 pm

Enjoyed your post very much. I haven’t thought much about chasing the elusive “happy” these days instead I’m decided to chose “happy” as the human, being content instead of the human, doing to make “happy”happen!


Hi Lyndah,
It is great to hear from you! I am glad to see more and more people choosing “being” rather than “doing”. I appreciate your interest in my blog!

Lyndah Malloy-Glover
March 12, 2014 8:40 pm

Hello Renata,
As always to give me cause-to-pause. Thanks for sharing, all the best!


Following my heart. Most recently I quit my job mkinag good money with no plans as to how I’m going pay my bills or feed my family. My job required me to be away from home for most of the year and I came to the conclusion that in order to be happy I would rather live in a shack and see my family every day than put them up in a nice house and never see them. Sounds crazy but then following ones heart frequently does. Was this answer helpful?

Renata Kulpa
March 3, 2016 8:45 pm

Thank you for sharing your story here and sorry for a delay in replying. I like how you were able to communicate your sense of pride from making the decision to “follow your heart”. It is about being authentic, isn’t it?


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