OF the pursuit of happiness?

Words by Molly Workman 


If life is a painted canvas, experiences of happiness are the brushstrokes of vibrant colour. They enrich and augment existence, the mere promise of happiness sufficient to motivate getting up in the morning, striving for goals, and finding resilience in periods of hardship or torment.  

And yet, like all transient, elusive states, happiness may be achievable for temporary periods of time, but is impossible to maintain indefinitely. In 2015, research published by The Telegraph suggested that just 3 people of every 10 in the UK claimed to be ‘happy with their lives’, a whopping 69% disclosing that they experienced feelings of entrapment within the same old routine. As a 19-year-old on the cusp of the very adult milestone of 20, I have an intimate knowledge of the trials and tribulations of teenager-dom, having only very recently navigated those turbulent waters myself. Whilst I may not be best suited to comment on the perils of adulthood, such as the ‘fears over ageing, mounting debt and work stress’ which the Telegraph pinpoints as among the 20 most common causes of unhappiness for the average adult Brit, I am within the community of young people plagued by specialised anxieties of our own – anxieties which have led to three-quarters of ninth grade students in a recent American survey reporting that it is either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very true’ that they ‘worry a lot’. In previous articles for The Little Book I have attempted to elucidate the causal factors behind sentiments of this nature, touching on the detrimental impact of social media on mental health, as well as the damaging effects on teen well-being of the excessive pressure of exams, imposed by the schooling system and parents alike.


However, this article diverges from those aforementioned by looking at ‘The Problem of Happiness’ through a more abstract lens, contending that the broader theoretical reason for declining rates of life satisfaction lies in the fact that the pursuit of happiness is actually inhibiting its achievement. Eleanor Roosevelt perhaps most eloquently expressed this in her 1960 book, You Learn By Living, proposing that, 

‘Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively.’  

 Pure happiness by nature is transitory, ephemeral, intangible; it is not something that can be permanently attained or stored, owned or consumed. I contend that if we accept the undeniable transience of happiness, and thus do not expect or strive to be happy at all times, we can find contentment in life. 


Psychologists Cooper and Keitel extend this notion to parenting advice in their 2008 book, I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn’t Say It, Why You Shouldn’t Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead: they argue that parents who ‘pledg(e) their allegiance to the happiness of their offspring’ negatively impact both generations, doing more to hinder than help. An informal study performed in a Chicagoan middle school uncovered that of 100 students surveyed, 70% believed that their parents would want them to be ‘happy’ above being ‘smart’, ‘successful’ or ‘good’. The authors suggest that this overwhelming statistic exhibits that children are being instilled with a damaging message which promotes the overemphasising of pleasure, encourages an overly self-focused attitude towards life and creates unrealistic expectations of future experience, each of which, in a multitude of ways, able to impede the child’s future happiness. The overemphasising of pleasure promotes the unhealthy desire for instant gratification, without regard for the discipline and patience required to secure future contentment and wellbeing; for example, the seeking of hedonistic pleasure for now rather than happiness for later might lead to a teen indulging in partying rather than prioritising their studies. Fostering unrealistic expectations of life within a child’s psyche, or encouraging an overly self-focused attitude, both also impress upon children values which may obstruct their future chances of finding contentment: Cooper and Keitel caution that ‘there’s a rude awakening in store for our kids’ as they enter an adult world where others are not ‘as devoted to their happiness’ as their parents may have been. Furthermore, the shocking statistic that 40% of us today are actively unhappy with our appearances suggests the damning consequences of society’s introspective, self-centred fixation on body image, which has been culturally manifested as a result of the pervasive influence of apps such as Instagram.



Catering to children’s whims may achieve short-term happiness but can easily de-skill them in the long run. A generation of young adults will be ill-prepared to face the inevitable challenges awaiting them, such as overcoming rejection in both relationships and professional spheres, or taking the disciplinary measures to economise and compromise monetarily for future gain rather than spending rashly for present pleasure.  

The late 1970s saw the conception and explosive success of M. Scott Peck’s magnum opus, The Road Less Traveled, a self-help bible now possessed by an estimated 6 million worldwide, the searching for the solution to ‘The Problem of Happiness’ a global and universal phenomenon. Like Cooper and Keitel, Peck asserts that expectations of life should not be sugar-coated; he famously commences his work with the simple, emphatic statement that ‘[l]ife is difficult’, arguing that our short existence will unavoidably be characterised and moulded by pain.

While for many this may be a bitter pill to swallow – and perhaps a considerably more cynical approach than his successors on the matter, Cooper and Keitel – Peck suggests that once we accept the reality that we will not only encounter and endure but must also learn to handle pain, we will be able to attain a deeper satisfaction and contentment within our lives. To Peck, it is within this process of ‘meeting and solving problems’ that life is given meaning, a notion that Cooper and Keitel corroborate with their assertion that meaning and purpose ‘anchors’ us to something more than the fleeting gratification of pleasure. 

I am not contending that striving for happiness is wrong or foolish; it is this very pursuit that makes us most human, that separates us from our animal counterparts. However, the premise of this piece is to illuminate the way in which we should go about striving for this happiness; we must attain it not through focusing on happiness as the end and only goal, but as something that we will get to experience as a result of other things in life. Focusing solely on the state of happiness is like relying wholly and fully on an entity that just cannot be trusted to carry that burden of responsibility. Instead, we must repatriate the responsibility firmly onto our own shoulders and allow happiness leeway to come and go as its transient nature dictates, because whilst we don’t have a choice on that matter – life is tough, as the popularised adage dictates – we can make a choice on the way we handle it. It is not until we accept the existence of pain in the human experience that we are able to bask in the pure, radiant vibrancy of happiness when it does happen to come our way.