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The Happiness Trap

The Happiness Trap
Published On: 14-Feb-2024

Article by

Armughan Munir


Aristotle famously said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. According to him, the purpose of life is to reach a state he called  eudaimonia. The widespread translation of the word eudaimonia in English is ‘a happy indwelling spirit’.

A few thinkers argue that eudaimonia doesn’t not mean happiness in the literal sense. When Aristotle defined Happiness to be the whole aim of life. It doesn’t translate to the ‘blissful feeling’ you get every now & then. If the purpose of life was to get into that blissful feeling. You could call drug addicts the peak of humankind. Everytime you come down - you can pop a few pills and get back into a happy state again. 

Yet on a larger scale, we’re all addicted to happiness. Places where the drug addicts get excited about getting the next ecstasy drug, we get excited about getting the next  job opportunity. If, for some reason, a drug addict can’t get the daily dose he requires to function properly. He will lose his normal sense of functioning. Similarly, if for some reason, we aren’t able to get the  job we desire so much. We start to feel like a failure, trapped in guilt. 


The drug addict and you both have one thing in common: You’re chasing the next big thing because you think it’ll give your life a sense of meaning. 


… but isn’t it good to strive for better living conditions? 

… isn’t it humane to strive for excellence in life? 


The problem is not with reaching for the horizon. Nor is the problem Icarian. The problem is the eluding feeling of happiness. The problem is, no matter what you do, no matter what you achieve, it always slips right between your fingers like sand. 


Every person around you is trying to achieve that state of happiness. A state of well-being and feeling good. As we’ve discussed before, there are two paths to that state. Both of which, as we will 

see, are a clever trap. Both of which are about chasing the emotion of happiness.


The Hedonistic Trap
There are two ways to happiness: The easy way & the hard way.

From the outer view, they look like two completely different lifestyles. They don’t correlate. Infact, if you put Fat Lee - who loves the easy way, and Smart Ned - who prefers the hard route. There is a good chance they might end up fighting each other. Yet, both Fat Lee and Smart Ned meet at the same destination (that is after sometime). The only difference is, Fat Lee gets there much quicker, unefficiently.

Fat Lee’s way to achieve eudaimonia is to stuff hamburgers with coke as his breakfast, take a starbucks with extra sugar as he drives to his office, eat a few more hamburgers and a dessert in his lunch, and pop a few cans of beers when he gets back home. Hey, he might even have a joint or two on weekends. Just to celebrate life, you know. 


From the time he wakes up to the time he slams his head back to bed. Fat Lee wants one thing: Pleasure. According to him, this is his eudaimonia. Our Fat Lee is stuck in what we would call, The Hedonistic Trap. Everytime he pops out of the elusive state of happiness, he arranges his route back.

It is worth mentioning that every day Fat Lee needs more of his “normal” dosage to get back into wonderland. Everyday, he adapts a little.

If we plot his state of happiness on a graph. We would see that it declines over time reaching a critical zero. In other words, Fat Lee is doomed to marry misery. 


Smart Ned, however, is a much more civilized guy. 


The Achievement  Trap


Smart Ned is a person with hopeful dreams, ambitions, and goals. He wants to become the best in his field. He is always pursuing the next big thing in his life. If you talk to him, he is always pursuing something great.  He wants to fly high. He wants to soar new heights and explore unknown lands.

The thing with Smart Ned is that he is never late. He has never missed a deadline. He is also the next line for promotion at the company he works for. The boss think he can make a great CEO one day… one day. The day Smart Ned has been anxiously waiting for. 


The day when all of his problems will be solved. The day when he will finally be enough. The day he will attain eudaimonia. 


The problem with Smart Ned is that he keeps postponing the day for tomorrow. He sacrifices everyday for someday. But hey, there are good days in Smart Ned’s life too. Once in a year, he reaches that state of happiness too. 

If we plot his state of happiness on a graph. We would see that it’s an all-time low with a spike here and there. Ultimately, he faces the same fate as Fat Ned: doomed to marry misery.  


I, myself, was a Smart Ned. 


Modern Variations of Smart Neds

In the 21st century, most societies (socially) reward Smart Neds. They rank higher on the social scale than Fat Lees.

However, there are a few variations of Smart Neds that we’ve observed during this time. A few of which fall into the Well-Being Trap. Being in the self-development space for a long time, I’ve seen these smart needs there.

These are people who have realized that they won’t settle for the once-a-year spike in Happiness. As a result, they start focusing on themselves more. They go for their bliss. They engage in well-being practices focused around the self.  All for good reasons. 

Another variation of well-being smart neds is the Spiritual Smart Neds. They are people who have also realized that a once-a-year spike is not enough. As a result, they start to dive into their inner world searching for enlightenment. In the process, they reject any other thing which doesn’t support their ‘spiritual journey’.  In a moment, we’ll discuss the mistake these variations of Smart Neds make.  


Fat Lee, Smart Ned, and their modern variations all chase happiness. It’s as if they’re trying to catch the horizon, fly too close to the sun, or try to look at the sun directly. 

If flying too close to the sun can make you fall. The answer is not to bound yourself to earth. It is to come up with a better way to withstand the heat. Icarus was not stupidly ambitious, he was ambitiously stupid. He might not have even gotten to the mesosphere before radiation from the sun burned his wings. Now, we can send satellites and astronauts beyond that with ease. 

The same nature of mistake is made by Fat Lees and Smart Neds. The mistake in their thinking is as follows: They take happiness as a goal, as a destination. They spend their life trying to achieve the state. 

Happiness, or Eudaimonia, is not a state of being. It is the result of your actions. The sum of your moral character. Trying to chase it as a goal only gets you farther away from it. It makes you more miserable. (A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggested that chasing happiness takes you away from it)

In addition to this, chasing happiness makes you weak. Take the example of Fat Lee. He chases happiness all through his day. He is doing his best to avoid suffering of any sort. He is too fragile to endure any form of suffering. As time passes, his fragility grows.  

The Problem with being a Smart Ned 

As we have seen earlier, Smart Ned suffers from the One Day Fallacy. He is always trading everyday for someday. However, when he gets into well-being or spiritual practices. He is able to see beyond the fallacy to realize his mistake.

This is a step ahead but not very useful because he falls into another trap. The modern-day obsession with well-being and spiritual practices undermines the real importance of both. 

The purpose of well-being and spiritual practices is not to make you happy, but to help you realize the beauty of more important virtues in life (compassion, strength, morality, character). This, in turn, is what makes you happy. 

Both Well-being and Spiritual Smart Neds become narrow focused on themselves. They fall into the trap of self. 


Another common mistake spiritual enthusiasts tend to make is they equate enlightenment to feeling good. Although it might be the case that enlightenment is a state of never-ending bliss. We can certainly say that the path to Enlightenment is not.

The story of Adam’s Fall to Garden narrates that in order for Adam and Eve to be accepted back into the garden. They have to pass through the gate. The same gate which is guarded by a Cherubim holding a flashing sword. In the metaphorical sense, The path back to the garden is through the dark part of yourself. 

The path to true well-being and enlightenment is rarely a smooth road. You have to be able to face your deepest fears, come face to face with them, look them in the eye and conquer them. This is not what most Smart Neds are doing. 

Chase Virtue

There are much better virtues in life to aim for than happiness. Virtues like strength, morality, service to those around you, art, beauty, love, and good. If chasing happiness makes you fragile, stop the chase, aim to become antifragile instead.

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