The Discomfort of Happiness

We often sacrifice long-term contentment for short-term comforts
December 31, 2020 Updated: December 31, 2020

I recently finished the first draft of a new book I’m writing. Almost every moment spent writing this book, like the previous ones I’ve written, has been tedious and arduous. It wasn’t enjoyable. But completing the draft made me happy.

The same goes for every race I’ve run. Every challenging project I’ve completed. Every difficult conversation I’ve had. I didn’t really enjoy doing any of these things. But I’m happy for having done them.

Conversely, I’ve spent hours binge watching television. I’ve eaten way too much food in one sitting. I’ve scrolled endlessly through social media. Doing these things gave me comfort in the moment, but merely satisfying my impulses in this way has rarely brought me happiness.

What these experiences of mine illustrate—and I’m sure you’ve had similar ones—is that there is a difference between comfort, on the one hand, and happiness on the other.

That which brings us comfort in the moment often erodes our contentment over the long term. That which requires stress and struggle is often the most satisfying. It’s the paradox of happiness.

Case in point: You may have seen on our website, on social media, or in our newsletter that my wife Heather was in the midst of a 12-day “Painting the Season” painting challenge. From December 1–12, Heather is creating a new painting every day that captures the spirit of the holiday season in northern Michigan.

Heather enjoys painting. But painting every day, at a high level of quality, is a real grind. To complete her challenge, at the same time she is home-schooling our kids and working her full-time job as creative director in our marketing agency, she has been waking up early every day to paint, often before 5 a.m.

She has been stressed. She is tired. On more than one occasion, she has questioned her decision to keep up this frenetic pace.

But with each day that passes, with another painting under her belt, her satisfaction grows. Her skills improve. Her confidence builds. Slowly but surely, she is taking steps to accomplish her goals and move closer to her long-term vision. In short, she’s grinding, but she’s happy—even if her moment-to-moment experiences aren’t pleasurable, or even comfortable.

The actions we take that we think will make us happy because they bring us momentary pleasure often don’t, and vice versa. The same goes for the material things we desire.

As humans, we are always chasing rainbows. We want something—be it a new wardrobe, better golf clubs, or a bigger house—but shortly after getting it, we want something different. We experience a quick buzz and then adapt to our circumstances. That which is new becomes the new normal, and we want more. We keep chasing happiness, but save for a fleeting grasp, we never grab hold of it.

This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” or “set-point theory.” Hedonic adaptation is a term coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in the 1970s to explain our tendency as human beings to chase a happier life, only to return back to our original emotional baseline or “set point” after getting what we want. We run on a hedonic treadmill and get nowhere, despite exerting massive effort along the way.

A belief that “bigger and better” leads to a happier life often results in less happiness—another paradox. We work really hard because we want more. We obtain more, and the shine soon wears off. So we work harder, in pursuit of even more, and become less happy as a result. The beat goes on.

When pursuing happiness, we must learn to enjoy the journey, and not merely fixate on the destination, of life’s events and experiences. We must stop clinging to the idea that there is any one thing, person, or job in this world, should we finally attain it, that will bring us lasting happiness.

In his book “Happier,” Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar describes the “arrival fallacy,” which is a corollary to the concept of hedonic adaptation. He describes the arrival fallacy as: “The false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”

He goes on to say: “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”

In this sense, ambition, itself, is not a bad thing. But it can become problematic when we allow the unending pursuit of growth and acquisition to inhibit our pursuit of happiness. Both ambitions—happiness and growth—can coexist, but only in balance.

The balance that must be struck is a tricky one. An ambitious life can and should be an exciting, satisfying, and happy life. But it requires a clear understanding of what the aim of ambition is. To me, and according to the happiness research, the target is clear: a life of meaning and purpose, not one spent seeking momentary pleasures and material possessions.

A meaningful life, where one’s energy, attention, and ambition is directed toward what really matters, is a flourishing life. “What really matters” is wholly different for each of us, but we all have some purpose we were meant to serve. The strife and struggle of life can help us discover that purpose. The work we put in leaves us with a deeper sense of meaning. The discomfort of doing hard things is what makes us happy. Happiness is found in the pursuit.

Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim.  He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.