The Happiness Problem

Our online series Becoming Human explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living systems. Today, Sam Wren-Lewis reflects on the modern pursuit of happiness and how letting go of control enables us to face reality.
is an independent scholar with a PhD from the University of Leeds on the study of wellbeing, and author of The Happiness Problem . Former Head of Research and Development at Happy City, Sam is now a self-employed wellbeing consultant and an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham.
For the past 250 years, we have lived in a society that sees reality  in terms of objects and resources, goals and plans, achievements and progress; and less in terms of relationships and subjects, exploration and play, learning and understanding. From a historical perspective, this makes sense. The Industrial Revolution changed everything. For the first time in human history, civilisations had the resources and opportunities for large amounts of people to dictate their own lives. This was a revolution in human expectations and control.

It was from this point onwards that a new goal of human existence took prominence: happiness. Before the 18th century, most people considered happiness to be more of a matter of good fortune than a serious goal of society or individuals. In fact, the word ‘happiness’ comes from the Old German word ‘happ’, meaning luck. In Spanish and Italian, the words felicidad and ‘felicite translate as ‘fortune’; similarly, the French word bonheur translates as ‘good fortune’. And the ancient Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, translates as having a good daemon. Any kind of lasting happiness was generally considered to be the result of some divine influence – a god or daemon on someone’s side, rather than anything down to someone’s own actions and choices. 

This all changed with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. By 1776, happiness was enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence, with US citizens entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Happiness was no longer something that required good fortune. Many individuals could now pursue happiness by satisfying their desires and achieving their goals – something that we largely take for granted in our definitions of happiness today. We tend to think about happiness as achieving the list of desired things inside our heads – the perfect job, relationship, family, home, body, mind, etc. If only we had these things then we’d be happy. We have common phrases such as, ‘I want a career that makes me happy’, ‘I want a happy relationship’ or ‘I just want my children to be happy’. We do not tend to realise that all these ideas – and the primacy of ‘happiness thinking’ in our lives – is a relatively modern obsession.      

In my book, The Happiness Problem, I show how this way of thinking about happiness is deeply problematic. The more we focus on the things we think will make us happy, the less we focus on the other things in life that matter. By focusing on the perfect job, we miss out on other meaningful forms of work (and leisure and rest). In trying to find ‘the one’, we blind ourselves to perfectly good, intimate and trusting relationships with others. In our desire to feel good most of the time, we fail to learn from our negative thoughts and feelings. We may achieve many of the items on our list, and even be a bit happier. But our achievements are just the tip of the iceberg – they will only ever make up a small part of the things in life that really matter.

The more we focus on the things we think will make us happy, the less we focus on the other things in life that matter

The way we think about happiness is symptomatic of a larger problem.  When it comes to our own happiness, we may overly focus on the things that we can control, rather than the things that really matter: getting that next promotion, having a better relationship or starting a family. But we do the same on a social level. We think that, if only we had the right politicians in power, adopted the best policies, or believed in the right ideologies, we’d all be better off; instead of understanding the underlying causes of our social issues, we end up with entrenched political disagreements, ‘us’ vs ‘them’ thinking and prioritise quick fixes over opportunities for real, lasting social change.

When we blind ourselves to what really matters, our pursuit of happiness and social progress has the potential to cause great harm. Our efforts to try and control ourselves, others and the natural environment have not just failed to make us happy – climate change, environmental degradation, increasing economic inequalities and mental health crises are not signs of a happy society – in fact, they are responsible for many of the major social and ecological problems we face today.       

There is a way out of the happiness problem. Whereas trying to be happy involves  narrowing our view of the world, we could, instead, open ourselves up to the fullness of reality: what it means to be human, including the parts that we cannot instantly change for the better. Through humility, curiosity and compassion, we could begin to see things more clearly and start to ask some difficult questions: Do we really know what will make us happy? Do we need to protect ourselves from all our fears? What impacts do our actions and choices have on others? How can we be more generous? What are the underlying causes of our major social issues: poverty, ill-health, crime, climate change? How can we create real social change in the long-term? In this way, we can attempt to improve our lives from a much stronger foundation: seeing things as they really are.      


The reality of being human 

What would our lives and the world look life if we began seeing things as they really are? On the one hand, it would be incredibly beautiful. On the other hand, it would be impossibly hard.   

Being human is so very hard. We are vulnerable, insecure, limited creatures. We have bodies that will eventually fail us and frequently cause us pain and discomfort. We live in relationship with others, which leaves us vulnerable to heartbreak, rejection and loss. We do not know what we are capable of and must fail many times if we are ultimately to succeed. Our lives are sustained by complex social and environment ecosystems, all vulnerable to major shocks and collapse. We gain meaning from our cultural norms and values, which also threaten our autonomy and individuality. The things that make life worth living are also the things that make it unbearable.                

Being human can also be very beautiful. At any moment, we can appreciate how lucky we are to be alive; how improbably wonderful the whole web of existence is – from the birth of the stars to the birth of a child. We can fall in love. We can taste the infinite small joys of life, for the brief time that we are blessed to be a part of it. Not a day goes by without the potential for wonder and belonging.                     

The abundance of joys and sorrows involved in being human is intense. If we exposed ourselves to the fullness of our realities, we might go mad. We have been equipped with psychological capacities that only expose us to the right amount of joy and sorrow – enough for us to get by and improve our lot. For most of the time, we shut out most of reality. We focus on our narrowly defined goals and how we can effectively achieve them. Only occasionally do we look up, beyond our daily goals and concerns, and let a little bit more of reality come flooding in. 

Getting the right balance between these two modes of living – acting on what we already know vs attending to the things we don’t – is a true art. There are some contexts where one mode is clearly more beneficial. When we are hungry and just need to make ourselves a sandwich, there is little use marvelling at the contents of the fridge (though maybe we should all do this from time to time). In contrast, when we are stuck in our lives, and keep on falling into the same habitual patterns, we may need to open ourselves up to the insights and opportunities that are currently out of site. In general, when things are going well, not much more reality is required. But when what’s worked in the past is no longer working for us, we need to see things differently.      

When we open ourselves up to reality, everything becomes much more complex and much less certain. We can see some good in all the bad things and some bad in all the good things. We are less in control – the world is made up of living entities, not just objects we can use and manipulate for our own gain. We exist in relationship to everything, which exists in relationship to everything else. The more we understand, the more we realise how much we don’t know. Nothing is stable or secure; everything is alive. Being happy is less important than seeing things as they really are – the relationships we are a part of, how much we receive and how much we could give back. 

It matters which one of these realities we live in.    


Our common reality 

We live in a control-based society – one that shuts us down from reality. We spend our days narrowly focused on what we can achieve and change for the better, and blind ourselves to all the things that aren’t so readily under our control. What would it look like, instead, to live in a connection-based society? One that opens us up to reality, in all its fullness and complexity? 

I feel there are five key features of reality and humanity that we would see more clearly if we were to drop our control-based ideas of of happiness and social progress. 

First, we would open ourselves up to our bodies. We are embodied creatures, made of mortal flesh. We navigate our lives through our bodies – unconscious, automatic emotional responses that alert us to changes in our internal and external environment.  We are less cognitive, rational and linguistic than we like to think we are, and our bodies are more intelligent than we give them credit for. This also means that there is no escaping the pains and discomforts that we must live with if we are to successfully navigate the challenges of our lives. Feeling the joys and sorrows of life is how we respond to the things that make life meaningful – our ambitions, responsibilities and relationships.   

Second, we would open ourselves up to our relationships. Humans are social beings – dependent on others for recognition, mutual care and support. In the same way that we literally see reality through our bodies, we also see the world through other people. It is from our early care-giving relationships that we first learn whether the world is a safe or threatening place. Physical touch can communicate more than a thousand words. So can being listened to without judgement – accepted by others, in all our multitudes, rather than simply being viewed as a collection of strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that this makes us vulnerable – to rejection, heartbreak and loss. 

Third, we would open ourselves up to community. The social nature of human beings extends well beyond our intimate relationships. We learn about the world not just through our loved ones, but also from those around us – each interaction with colleagues at work or update from friends on social media. We live in social realities of our own making. On the one hand, our communities can liberate us, showing us what matters and supporting us to achieve it. On the other hand, they can restrict us, pressuring us to conform to norms and rules that neither fit our nature nor help us achieve our potential. Learning to live in community requires facing up to this predicament over the false comfort of independence and self-sufficiency.

All the things that make life meaningful also make us vulnerable – loss is the universal leveller of human experience. Our joys may be different, but our sorrows are the same

Fourth, we would open ourselves up to humanity. Our social nature may force us into groups and tribes – people ‘like us’ who share many of the same opportunities, threats and concerns. But, even if we can look very different to each other, and lead vastly different kinds of lives, we have more in common than we tend to acknowledge. All the things that make life meaningful also make us vulnerable – loss is the universal leveller of human experience. Our joys may be different, but our sorrows are the same. Human progress that comes at the cost of others is not real progress. As the poet, Kahlil Gibran put it, ‘And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone/ Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.’ The true marker of progress is how much we are using our resources and opportunities to help out those who have least, which requires facing up to the privileges and obligations afforded by our current lifestyles. 

Fifth, we would open ourselves up to the natural world. Our survival may depend on our bodies, relationships, communities and human systems, but none of these things matter if we cannot sustain the natural ecosystems we all rely upon. In order to exist, other living things must suffer and die. We require plants and animals to produce food, and other natural ‘resources’ to produce energy and shelter. We do not exist independently of these things. Personally, I used to want to ‘do good’ or ‘make a difference’ in the world, as if I was separate to the web of relationships that sustained my life. I now recognise that I am partly responsible for the natural and human ecosystems that I take from – that I must find ways of protecting them and giving something back. This is much more challenging than the abstract idea of doing good – it is a constant process of gratitude and grief, one that never ends.

When we open ourselves up to reality, these five things – bodies, relationships, community, humanity and nature – shine with intensity. This may be beautiful for a while, or it might be unbearable. At some point, we will want to shut ourselves off from reality again – create some new goals and plans that will, at least for the time being, make things more manageable. Reality is difficult. Seeing it clearly requires facing up to our limits, our vulnerability and insecurity. 

Of course, we would much prefer a story in which becoming human ended up in us living happily ever after. The problem is that the story of humanity does not end in this way. We can fight reality for a while, and may even win a few battles, but it is reality that will ultimately win. Instead of going to war with reality, we should seek to make peace with it – to learn from it, to deeply understand ourselves, others and our environment. This story doesn’t have an ending – it is an ongoing process of seeing what really matters.  



IMAGE Prophet by Janet Lees

Prophet comes from my Anthropocene Prophecy series, an open-ended curation of the times we live in; a kind of recycling of perception that helps me to witness the devastation that surrounds us without turning away. I aught sight of this little orange man in a back street in Liverpool, and saw a prophet of huge rage, with the power to burn everything down, preaching along though the ashes of his own destruction. (from Dark Mountain: Issue 15)

Janet Lees is an artist and poet living on the Isle of Man. In 2018 she was the visual artist representing the island at the Festival Interceletique in Lorient, France, and her images form a visual thread through the Climate Minds Anthology.


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  1. Fabulous observations. Imagine Dark Mountain’s potential if it dare to reach beyond the Project state, beyond the community it is currently and become part of mainstream, of our everyday lives and interactions – in short, of reality with all its ups and downs?

  2. Thanks, Sam, for your thoughts and observations about something so crucial to wonder about – after 250 years of trying to be happy: “How’s it going?”

    One of the aspects you may spend more time on in your book (I know that in a 2500 word blog you can’t do it justice) is about the notion of ‘obligation’ and how central that used to be in human life before happiness became so all-consuming. I recognize that if we place ourselves at the top of the hierarchy all under us are there for our use – but if the world isn’t a hierarchy but a wheel that all species hold up then we all have an obligation to look after our part. And if we don’t – all will suffer.

    Blessings on your work and your words.

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking and beautifully written article.

    Having recently been through a deeply moving and intense Vipassana meditation course, I am convinced that real ‘happiness’ lies within, but it takes patience, effort, time, like all other endeavours.

    Having been through this experience, my definition of happiness has moved closer to what is commonly called as nirvana. Words will only pollute, but I will still give it a shot: It is a kind of state where you have lasting peace, equanimity with your inner self and your surroundings, a state where new cravings and aversions are not created and the past ones have slowly all melted away. Yet, it is very different than numbing yourself.

    Of course, I have not experienced this state, but have experienced enough to see a bit of the path that leads there. So I would recommend this course to anyone interested in exploring the subject deeply, even if only as a one time experience.


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