Happiness Is Bullshit
You might think you want to be happy. You get out of bed and go to work because it makes you happy. Or maybe your job sucks, and you wish you worked somewhere else—somewhere you’d be happier. Or maybe your job isn’t that important to you, it’s just a way to pay the bills, and the thing that really makes you happy is staring off into the distance and holding your arms out like the idiot in the photo.
Whatever it is you’re doing, your goal is to be happy. Right?
Wrong. You don’t want to be happy. Nobody wants to be happy. The idea that any of us are pursuing happiness, that it’s our most fundamental goal in life, is bullshit. It’s contradicted by almost everything we do.
For example, here’s a list of problems with the idea that humans want to be happy:
We know that if we savor every moment—every smile, every meal, every ray of sunshine—we will be happy. Yet we savor maybe 1% of our moments.
We know that if we appreciate what we have, from the roof over our heads to the clothes on our backs, we will be happy. Yet we appreciate maybe 1% of what we have.
Good news makes us happier than bad news. Yet we consume way more bad news than good news, even though we can’t do anything about the bad news, and even though there is plenty of good news available.
Anger feels bad. Yet when we’re angry with our loved ones, we think about all the times they made us angry, which just makes us angrier. Why don’t we think about all the times they made us happy?
We can delude ourselves into believing pretty much anything: the earth is flat, the world is run by a cabal of satanic pedophiles, etc. Yet we never delude ourselves into believing that everything is perfect and wonderful as it is.
If we were actually pursuing happiness, we’d be very good at it by now, given our many years of practice. Yet studies show that we suck at it. We’re incredibly bad at predicting how happy things will make us or how long our happiness will last.
There are vast bodies of scientific research that could help us stop sucking at happiness, like Positive Psychology, the science of happiness. Yet most people aren’t very interested in this research. It’s kind of boring.
We work too much, and some of us literally work ourselves to death, even though we’re well-aware that this makes us unhappy.
Having a child makes us less happy and more stressed, and we know this, yet we do it anyways, often multiple times.
We maintain relationships with assholes, even though it’s clear we’d be happier without those assholes in our lives.
We constantly beat ourselves up, but we almost never give ourselves compliments.
We complain about Twitter on Twitter.
“But David,” you object, “I really do want to be happy. I might be bad at it, but I still want it!”
Sorry, that’s bullshit. To “want” something is to learn how to get it and take it when it’s available. But you don’t learn how to get happiness. You repeatedly do things that make you miserable. Happiness is available for the taking—just savor the moment or appreciate what you have—but you never take it. So in what sense do you really “want” happiness?
“But David,” you say, “being happy is hard. It takes a lot of work. I want to be happy, but I sometimes lack the self-control.”
Sorry, that’s bullshit too. The whole point of self-control is to help you tolerate short-term discomfort to achieve a long-term goal. But happiness is the opposite of discomfort, and it is your long-term goal (according to you). So why do you need self-control to tolerate being happy in order to achieve your long-term goal of being happy?
“But David,” you say, “what if human beings want deeper forms of happiness, like eudaimonia or self-actualization?”
Yea, that’s bullshit again. It’s not like being mad at our loved ones, ignoring good news about humanity’s progress, working ourselves to death, beating ourselves up, spending time with assholes, sleepwalking through life, and never appreciating what we have is all part of our master plan to achieve self-actualization.
The truth is, we’re animals—specifically, apes. Our brains are the product of evolution. It would be very strange if evolution made us want happiness as our number one goal. Happiness is inside our heads—it’s not out there in the world. It has no connection to survival or reproduction, which kind of has to exist if we evolved to want it. Eudamonia and self-actualization make even less sense as evolved goals.
What we want, as apes, is much more straightforward.
We want sex. We want to be sexy. We want tasty yum yums for our face-holes. We want to establish dominance, or we want to display submission. We want to stay warm, avoid snakes, use tools, support our tribes, not be on fire, ascend social hierarchies, form alliances, show off our health and virtue, nurture cute babies (preferably ones that share our DNA), and make people feel indebted to us (so they’ll help us in the future when we’re sick or injured).
These are the sorts of things we want—the things that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Not happiness.
Once we accept this fact, everything starts to make sense. Why do we read so much bad news? Because scary stuff can kill us and happy stuff can’t. Why are we bored by Positive Psychology? No sex or death in it. Why do we work too much? Status anxiety. Why do we simmer in anger and shitpost on Twitter? Dominance. Why do we beat ourselves up and stay friends with assholes? Submission. Why do we have kids, even though they make us miserable? Come on.
The actual motives of human primates are pretty unflattering, and we would prefer not to talk about them. That’s why we pretend that happiness (or self-actualization or whatever) is the reason for everything we do. It’s the perfect PR story. We run cancer marathons not to show off our health and virtue, but because we find it “rewarding.” We help our friends not to make them feel indebted to us, but because we’re “happy” to do it. “So glad you could make it,” we say to the asshole. “Happy to take care of it,” we say to our boss. We tell people we want to be happy because it sounds good. Or at least, it sounds better than the truth.
“Okay David,” you say. “Let's assume you’re right, and I don’t want to be happy. Everything is bullshit, haha, I get it. There’s still this feeling I have called happiness. I feel it when I look at a sunset or eat a delicious meal. That feeling is real, and it’s an important part of my life. How do you explain that feeling? And why does it seem like I want it?”
Great questions! Now we’re getting somewhere.
First, we need to make a distinction between happiness (enjoying stuff) and motivation (wanting stuff). These are different things that live in different parts of the brain. You can enjoy something without wanting it, and you can want something without enjoying it. For example, I enjoy meditating, but I never want to do it. Doomscrolling upsets me, but I often want to do it.
The big mistake we make is lumping happiness and motivation together. We assume that happiness is what causes us to be motivated, and that without happiness, we’d just sit around all day doing nothing. This is wrong. Most of what we do doesn’t make us happy, but we do it anyways. We shlep, small-talk, run errands, and go through the motions, without a scintilla of enjoyment required. We don’t need happiness to motivate us, any more than a thermostat needs happiness to perform its function of keeping our homes at the right temperature.
So then what do we need happiness for? Why does it exist? What is its job, exactly? The answer is complicated,  so we’ll need to use an analogy: a guessing game.
Your life is a guessing game that you play with the world around you. You’re constantly guessing how things will turn out for you: “Will they laugh at my joke?” “Will my paella taste good?” When you guess correctly, and things go as expected, you’re blasé—"nothing to see here, moving right along.” When you guess incorrectly, and things are unexpected, your brain starts firing on all cylinders. Emotions kick in.
Happiness is when you guess wrong, but in a good way. You thought people would roll their eyes at your dumb joke, but they’re howling with laughter. You thought the paella would taste like shit, but it’s a culinary miracle. Happiness rewires your brain so that you tell more jokes, cook more Spanish cuisine, or subscribe to this surprisingly insightful substack. Happiness is like your brain saying, “getting warmer.”
But that doesn’t mean you want to be happy. When you play a guessing game, your goal is not to maximize the number of times you hear the words “getting warmer,” is it? No, your goal is to guess the thing. That’s why it’s called a guessing game. If you can guess the thing on the first try, without any “getting warmers,” that’s a good thing. That’s what you’re going for.
So too with the guessing game of life. If you can guess how everything is going to turn out—jokes, paellas, whatever—you’re doing great. The more often people laugh at your jokes, the better you get at predicting what they will laugh at, and the better you get at telling jokes. But eventually, you stop needing the “getting warmers,” and you stop relishing the sweet sound of laughter. Joke-telling becomes rote and mechanical. You become the comic relief character, and that’s like your job now.
That’s why it seems like you want to be happy. You’re chasing the sort of thing that made you happy in the past, when you first got the “getting warmer” signal, even if it no longer makes you happy now. All of the objects of your desire are associated with happy memories, which creates the illusion that happiness is what all your desires have in common. But it’s not. The more you get what you want, the more predictable it becomes, and the less you enjoy it when you get it. You’re not pursuing happiness so much as chasing it away.
Now don’t get me wrong. Happiness is great. It serves a vital function. But it’s not what you think it is. It’s not a substance you’re directly pursuing, like food or water. It’s not the purpose of life, or even something you’re particularly interested in. You don’t want it, and even if you did want it, you couldn’t pursue it, because it’s unpredictable, and you can’t pursue something if you can’t predict it.
Happiness is an excuse, a placeholder, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves.
In other words, it’s bullshit.
 Here’s a technical description of the model I’m imagining. The brain computes, using evolved and learned priors, which of various outcomes have the highest expected value (in terms of fitness proxies). The higher the expected value of an outcome, the greater the motivation—i.e. the amount of attention and energy mobilized—to pursue it. “Happiness” is triggered by a positive prediction error. We feel happy when the actual value of an outcome turns out to be greater than its expected value. This error causes us to rapidly mobilize energy (if more energy is needed), rapidly relax (if energy is no longer needed), attend to (i.e. “savor”) the outcome, simulate it in working memory, determine which features were counterfactually unique to it, upweight those features’ expected value, and encode them in long-term memory. As a result, those unique features will appear more valuable to us (i.e. more energizing, more attention-grabbing) the next time we encounter them. This is just another way of saying that we are “positively reinforced”—i.e. the features that were counterfactually unique to the outcome now have a higher expected value than they did before. The more frequently we experience the outcome, the better we get at predicting its value based on its unique features (i.e. the prediction error decreases), and the less “happy” we feel when we experience it (i.e. the less attention and reinforcement is needed). Eventually, after many repetitions of this process, we stop “liking” the outcome while still continuing to “want” it: that is, we continue to value and pursue it but are no longer surprised by it, attentive to it, or further reinforced by it. This model is an amalgam of the prediction error theory of dopamine and the internal regulatory variable theory of motivation.
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