This section explores the various forms that happiness acts not as a signal of an ideal life, but as something that holds us back from greater well-being.
Whether the pleasure we pursue is something we chase through the hamster wheel, shrug our shoulders at, or blissfully bask in, checking in on our old pal happiness is a vital life tune-up that is often overlooked.
To understand how happiness can act as a hindrance to meaning, we first need to tease out some nuance within happiness and meaning – we will use some fruit to help get us there.
Happiness as a term within the zeitgeist has been saddled with far more than its strict dictionary definition.
Happiness, the word, refers to positive emotions e.g. a “pleasant and contented mental state”. This is happiness in life – changing from moment to moment.
‘Happiness’, as understood colloquially, is something much bigger. It is the thing we are after in life, a massive umbrella of good feelings, life-long satisfaction, and overall well-being. The vague magnitude of this definition is one facet of why ’happiness’ is a broken concept. In short, we treat ‘happiness’ as a catch-all for well-being, success, meaning, satisfaction, virtuousness, good feels, and on and on.
To avoid conflating terms, happiness refers to a sense of well-being. Pleasure, comfort, desire, elation, etc are all forms of happiness. ‘Happiness’ is the cultural and aspirational catch-all for happiness and anything else that makes a ‘well-lived’ life.
So happiness and ‘happiness’are bad?
Not at all! ‘Happiness’ is tough to pin down, and thus difficult to actually pursue. Happiness is a good feeling, but can be a bit volatile, subjective to consistent pleasure inputs.
We instead choose to focus on joy, which is defined as the state, feeling, and/or sense of well-being stemming from meaning, purpose, and perspective. Happiness is an element of joy, but not synonymous with joy.
Perhaps the strongest contributor to joy is meaning, which is what one makes of their life. We break up meaning into four main cornerstones.
- Love – Our relationships with others (romantic and otherwise) and the related expressions and feelings
- Service – Giving back or in some way acting upon what you believe in for the greater good or others
- Discovery and Exploration – Learning more about yourself, the world, and yourself within the world
- Expression – Being true to your groove and engaging with the world in a personally authentic way through art, experience, or otherwise
Utilizing the nuance of the definitions above, here is the summary of this entire section.
Feeling turned around?
Reference the definition sidebar or keep our glossary open to refer to throughout readings.
Watch the videos that illustrate the two different ways happiness acts as a hindrance in our lives.
Happiness We Chase
The pursuit of happiness can consume us and can build in our minds until happiness feels like the sole purpose of living. Over time, we become limited both by our sole pursuit of happiness and by our routines of achieving it.
Happiness We Settle Into
We aren’t actively pursuing happiness because we are already happy. Life is going well and we are perfectly content to settle for this level of happiness, never wondering what else could be.
Yellow Fruit Metaphor
The yellow fruit metaphor utilizes the definitions above and some intuitive imagery to get acquainted to what seems like a bit of a paradox. Knowing the difference between harmless-happiness and hindrance-happiness enables us to shift focus and make changes that will cultivate joy.
Lemons and Bananas
We can examine different aspects of our lives – jobs, hobbies, friendships, etc – through the lens of yellow fruit: lemons and bananas.
Lemons have juice. When we squeeze lemons, we are able to make a lemonade that is delicious and satisfying.
Bananas, no matter how hard you squeeze them, will not provide the juice needed to satisfy thirst.
Lovely Lemon Juice
Utilizing the four cornerstones framework, lemons are what provide love, service, discovery & exploration, and expression. We can cultivate lemons to create a life that is rich in meaning and, ultimately, as satisfying as a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day.
The cornerstones beget meaning.
Meaning (along with ephemeral pleasures, flow, and perspective) begets joy: the culmination of a well-lived life.
Happiness is one part of a well-lived life, but it is not synonymous with it.
When the pursuit of happiness – or ‘happiness’ – diminishes our ability to pursue meaning (and therefore diminishes a critical element of joy) then happiness becomes a hindrance to joy.
The cornerstones of meaning are represented as lemons. The juice that we get when we squeeze (i.e. engage with) lemons, is meaning. Meaning is wonderful and satisfying, like lemonade on a hot day.
Bananas are the ‘happiness’ that can hinder meaning. Unlike lemons, bananas do not produce juice when squeezed. While the similarities between lemons and bananas more or less starts and stops at the color, unfocused or unknowing eyes may easily confuse the two.
Look at the image below. Some parts are clearly lemons, some are clearly bananas, but there are other zones where the distinction is a bit unclear. We are going to explore the obvious bananas, obvious lemons, and all those murky zones in the middle.
With lemons’ lovely juice explained, let’s go bananas!
Squeezing Bananas for Juice
As mentioned earlier, and likely known from your own life’s experiences, bananas are not a juicy fruit. You squeeze a banana, you get mush.
In this yellow-fruit metaphor, bananas represent happiness in its many forms: pleasure, comfort, serotonin, dopamine – the list goes on. The sensation of happiness doesn’t necessarily define a banana, more so that bananas cannot, by their nature, provide the lasting satisfaction of meaning-lemonade. The fleeting happiness of a banana is just that: fleeting.
If we are thirsty, a banana can hold us over or distract us from our thirst. When we are thirsty again, another banana will keep the thirst at bay. This can go on for some time, all the while never quenching the thirst.
Companies spend a lot of money trying to blur the line between lemons and bananas, which is further mucked up by our culture and social media habits (more on this later). Bananas are ripe (haha) with nuance. In further sections, we will dig further into common cultural bananas, as well as less intuitive ones.
Squeezing Small Lemons
You take a drink on a hot day. That sip provides some level of satisfaction. You aren’t necessarily thirsty, but you aren’t necessarily satisfied. You squeezed your lemons and that was the amount of juice you got – so this must be it right? Joy?
A joyful life is not an on/off switch. Engaging with some element of meaning doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘a deeply meaningful life’ – we must cultivate many rich resources to fill our proverbial glass. In addition, the cornerstones that provide love, service, discovery & exploration, and expression are formed and changed as our lives progress. A rich combination in your early twenties will likely be as juicy in your thirties.
Sources of meaning that don’t totally hit the spot are the small lemons in our life.
- The friend we care about yet don’t go out of our way to spend time with
- The job we like, but don’t love
- The dreams and hobbies that never find space on our schedules
- The old passion that has started to feel routine or mundane
When sizing up our glass of lemonade, the question doesn’t stop at ‘does it provide juice?’ one must also consider, ‘is it enough to satisfy?’
The cornerstones to a meaningful life are deeply related to one another and enable flourishing when built upon holistically. That missing bit of satisfaction—that last sip to quench your thirst—may be quite tricky to spot. We examine how and why small lemons hinder our ability to live into a meaningful and joyful life in a further section.
Ready to seek out small lemons now?
Use the Assessment Center to help you spot the best lemons to squeeze in your life.
Lemons left on the table
There are billions and billions of humans who lived and are living on this little blue planet. Many of these lives have reported to be quite happy without our proverbial lemonade recipe. And yet, a happy life doesn’t negate the wondering of what else could be – what is being left on the table of life?
Consider a quintessential depiction of happiness: loving marriage, beautiful family, comfortable home, engaging work and indulgent vacations. That happy life very likely taps into love, service, discovery & exploration, and expression, but meaning is not explicitly part of the recipe; there is no checkbox for consideration, purpose or creative genius on the scoresheet of a happy life.
When we have a happy life similar to (or different from) the one depicted above, two truths can exist in tandem:
- This wonderful life is something to be grateful for
- There are rich veins of life yet untapped
These rich veins are the lemons left on a table; the bits of goodness that were never picked up and squeezed. Truth One, this wonderful life is something to be grateful for, fogs out Truth Two, there are rich veins of life yet untapped.
When we lean on bananas for happiness, we sometimes get this sense of nagging emptiness or restless discontent. When we have a happy life with love, service, discovery, exploration, and expression, we may never notice our own happiness is holding us back from even deeper well-being. In this way, happiness is a hindrance we settle into.
So my happiness in life is actually wrong?
Not at all! We aren’t here to criticize ‘the good life’ – whatever that looks like to you. Rather, we are hoping to inspire readers to ponder the idea of whether there is a point at which ‘the good life’ becomes the ‘good enough’ life, a life in which we settle into what we’ve built, content to ride it out from there.
Remember, lemons left on the table are not mutually exclusive with a happy life. They are a missed opportunity for a sweeter, more complex, unique and special juice, even if we aren’t suffering from the absence of a lemon.
Watch the video below for another metaphor into how happiness acts as a hindrance in this capacity.
Lemons! Bananas! Worksheets! Oh my!
Take a moment to explore some of your lemons & bananas with this worksheet.
For more practice on identifying the different elements of happiness (ephemeral pleasures, engagement & flow, perspective, and meaning) visit our page on Well-Being Diaries or take a Time Audit.
Hindrances Over Time
Happiness can fill your life. Happiness can numb your life. But Happiness can not give you a full life.
The paradox of happiness-hindering happiness is complex and present in many forms within one’s life, changing over time and appearing in both short and long bursts. In other words…
Happiness as a hindrance can be tricky to spot.
Happiness as a hindrance to meaning can come in all shapes and sizes. The yellow-fruit metaphor is simply one lens of many to view the nuance between happiness and meaning through i.e. happiness is a banana, meaning is a lemon, both are yellow fruit but only one provides juice.
Here are a few examples that also fall within the framework of happiness as a hindrance.
Happiness Can Be…
As we search for where happiness may be hindering meaning and joy in our lives, keep in mind that we aren’t searching to eliminate the good feelings in our lives or disavow all our favorite bananas. Rather, we are seeking to find a deeper, more resilient sense of well-being by being mindful of where we spend our time and energy. A true meaning-rich life is one where we can squeeze our lemon/banana smoothie and drink it too.
The Questions To Ask
To determine if happiness is hindering meaning in our lives, we must check in with the choices we make. Happiness as a hindrance is more complex than a singular moment in time or an on-off switch – the following questions are a great way to uncover what in your life may be a lemon, and what may be a banana.
- Does this contribute to meaning?
- Is the meaning this provides enough to satisfy?
- What else could be if I engaged with more meaning?
Where might happiness be acting as a hindrance to deeper meaning for the people in these examples?
Ask the questions above and remember the cornerstones of meaning are love, service, discovery & exploration, and expression.
Note: These are caricatures of people with a simplified narrative of their lives. We leave out much of the complexity and nuance of an actual lived experience for the sake of a straightforward exercise.
When considering where happiness may be hindering meaning in our lives, there are many questions and possibilities to consider beyond the three introduced on this page.
As we go forward, we’re going to ask some hard questions about the ‘good’ life:
- Is all ‘happiness’ equal? Is there something ‘more?’
- Is a ‘happy’ life a complacent one?
- Where do I get my definition of a ‘good’ life? What am I influenced by?
- What could be so bad about choosing ‘happiness?’