Happiness somehow being ‘bad’ for us can feel like a betrayal. Et tu, Happiness? We put trust in the things that feel good. In this section, we explore the ways that happiness may not always be the most reliable signal of our best life.

The Three Other Elements of Well-Being

Meaning is the richest and most significant source of well-being, but it isn’t the only one. There are three other elements to well-being that each play a role in both the happinesses that enriches our well-being and the happinesses that acts as a hindrance to meaning.

Not familiar with the four elements of well-being?

Ephemeral Pleasures are quick bursts of happy, they are fleeting (ephemeral) and feel good (pleasure)

  • Examples of ephemeral pleasures are things like a great meal, hot shower, bingeable TV show, or those items we impulse buy when shopping

Engagement & Flow are both the happiness that comes from feeling totally absorbed in something, with flow having the additional element of challenge.

  • Watching TV is easy and absorbing, so it is engagement
  • Climbing a rock wall is challenging and absorbing, so it is flow
  • Solving a crossword puzzle, knitting, or cooking could be engagement or flow, depending on the individual’s level of challenge

Perspective is a mindset that makes our well-being less dependent on external influences. It is a meta-category that contextualizes all of our experiences.

  • Example: Perspective around a ‘negative’ experienceWithout perspective we may suffer through daily chores or errands and see them as a detriment to our happiness.
    With perspective we can take on those tasks without added misery, finding acceptance in the necessity of going to the grocery store or folding our clothes.
  • Example: Perspective around a ‘positive’ experience
    Without perspective we need that big glass of wine or stellar pair of shoes to feel happy; our wanting for those things becomes a need in our minds – without those things we don’t feel happy
    With perspective we know while wine and cool shoes are nice, they are not true needs and we will be just fine without them.

Meaning is what we make of our life as a whole and has its own four cornerstones of love, service, discovery & exploration, and expression. While the four elements of well-being are often linked and interdependent, meaning is the richest source of well-being. We need meaning for deep and lasting well-being.

There is potential in the first three elements of well-being to act as a hindrance to the fourth, meaning. However, it is important to remember that Ephemeral pleasures, Engagement & Flow, and Perspective are not by any means bad or something we should avoid at all cost. Rather, by being aware of where our well-being stems from (and how satisfying/detrimental it is to us as a whole) we can make choices about where to pour our time and energy into.

Elements of Well-Being as (Potential) Hindrances To Meaning

Ephemeral pleasures are fleeting by nature and do not offer a lasting sense of well-being. There is much more on how this particular happiness acts as a hindrance to meaning in our sections Peeling Back Pleasure and Trap 1: Happiness We Chase.

Engagement and Flow can feel all-consuming. For something that is simply engaging (not challenging), understanding the potential limitations to a life well-lived is fairly intuitive: there is more to life than watching television dramas, despite how wrapped up we feel when watching them. When we are in a flow-state we are engaged, challenged, and time flies by. The flow-state doesn’t distinguish ‘good for you’ from ‘not good for you’. We can be in flow gambling away our last dollar or ditching our loved ones for more time spent on a passion project. Flow as a hindrance can be subtle too, and is explored further in ‘The Flow Vortex’ as well as in its own section.

Perspective plays a role in our well-being because it plays a role in every experience we have, like a pair of glasses that tint the way we see the world. Perspective is both powerful and limited. Perspective changes the context for the way things are, but does not actively build into ‘better’. To use an extreme example, if we are at the bottom of a hole, perspective could make sitting there more tolerable, but does nothing to help us climb out. Meaning, on the other hand, is building and building and building into your life so we are not just out of the hole, but on the mountain, enjoying the panoramic views of life.

In everyday life, we are often not testing the limits of our perspective by falling down wells, making the potential hindrances of perspective far more murky. Perspective is with us for the breadth of all of our experiences involving both the elements of well-being and the cornerstones of meaning. We want to maintain an awareness of the depth of our perspective and how it intertwines and connects our greater lived experience. Perspective is neither a substitute for a life rich in meaning nor an optional element – they are best when flowing together.

Remembering our lemon & banana metaphor, lemons are only what contributes to meaning. It is completely possible for these three other elements of well-being to aid or bolster meaning, but these happinesses on their own are bananas. While there is nothing wrong with a banana, the distinction remains important because it enables us to choose what to pour our time and energy into. When we are choosing a banana with intention, we can fully enjoy its banana-y goodness without expecting it to contribute to our well-being beyond what it is able to.

Food For Thought

Let’s imagine meaning to be like a nutritious meal that tastes great and leaves you feeling fueled and full of energy. Beyond being healthful, let’s also consider meaning to be your favorite meal, perfectly cooked to your exact flavor palette.

Now let’s imagine the three types of happiness that act as a hindrance to meaning also represented as foods. These types of happiness are called “Happiness Traps.

Think of ‘Traps’ Like…

These forms of happiness as a hindrance are labled as ‘traps’ but are not meant to carry the same villainous connotation as a bear-trap that springs metal teeth into your leg.

These happiness traps are more akin to stepping in gum and having your foot catch, getting into a conversation with a very chatty person, or feeling reluctant to leave your cozy bed in the morning – we can get sort of slowed or stuck, but we can remove ourselves with a little effort.

Trap 1: Happiness We Chase

Might Look Like

  • Seeking out pleasure after pleasure over more sustaining forms of well-being
  • Attempting to build a happy life by choosing what will ‘make us happy’ in the moment
  • Overvaluing the lasting impact of ephemeral pleasures

This happiness is like eating only chips and treats when trying to build a happy and healthy life.

How Does This Happiness Feel?
Great in the moment, but comes with negative side effects when overindulged.

When is this happiness problematic?
At the extreme end, pleasure- seeking activities can look like binge-drinking, hoarding, or hours wasted on scrolling. This happiness goes beyond enjoying ephemeral pleasures as wonderfully ephemeral and seeks them out as a sustaining source of happiness, which by definition, are not.

When is this happiness harmless?
A wonderful part of life are its ephemeral pleasures – the scoop of ice-cream, comedy sitcom, or warm bath. When we can enjoy these pleasures without feeling beholden to them, then meaning is not hindered.

Trap 2: Happiness We Settle For

Might Look Like

  • Having some level of meaning present in life, but not enough to enable flourishing
  • Lacking a robust sense of well-being
  • Wondering ‘is that it?’ when engaging with things that supposedly make you happy
  • Feeling constrained in your well-being, struggling or stagnated in building a better life

This happiness is like eating a protein bar; you feel full enough, but not satisfied.

How Does This Happiness Feel?
Not bad, but also not great. This sort of ‘good-enough’ territory lacks a deep sense of satisfaction.

When is this happiness problematic?
This form of happiness is problematic when we are in limbo between accepting the constraints of our well-being and seeking to push beyond them. Not every friend, job, or hobby needs to be a deep rich source of meaning, but when we are unable to tap into enough sources of meaning, then we are settling for a lackluster well-being.

When is this happiness harmless?
Not everything needs to meet all our needs perfectly, but there is great benefit in knowing how everything stacks up. A friend we love but can’t trust to follow through on plans isn’t someone we need to cut ties with if we have a sense of acceptance within that friendship. There is a sense of ‘I’m not getting this here, but that’s okay, because I’m getting it there’ or ‘I am able to live just fine without it’

Trap 3: Happiness That Satisfies

Might Look Like

  • Not actively pursuing new depths of happiness or meaning
  • Feeling largely contented with life
  • Identifying ways in which the four cornerstones of meaning are present in life
  • Wondering what deeper meaning could look like is not a high priority

This happiness is like eating a really tasty meal and never trying anything else because you like this one so much.

How does this happiness feel?
Pretty good! Life is going well, there is a lot to be grateful for. There isn’t much interest in ‘rocking the boat.’

When is this happiness problematic?
This form of happiness is problematic when there is no sense of curiosity of what could make life more beautiful, enriching, or meaningful. When life is going well, there can be a tendency to shrug off meaning with an ‘all good over here, thanks but no thanks’ which inadvertently sacrifices the opportunities to build into a better life, piece by piece.

When is this happiness harmless?
By all means, enjoy your life! Practicing gratitude and acceptance in life are wonderful skill sets that can enable a more contented well-being. There is a quote by Confucius that goes, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop”. If you are staying curious, open to deeper meaning, and actively seeking ways to engage with more meaning, then this form of happiness as a hindrance doesn’t properly apply.

With each of these veins, there is the necessity of being able to identify what in our life contributes to meaning, and what doesn’t. In other words, we need to tell our lemons from bananas.

To dig a little deeper into bananas, and why they can sometimes seem larger than life, we need to explore some of the additional forces as play. The following sections explore our own psychology, unpack the world around us, and look into happiness’s odd relationship with anxiety, depression, and addiction. When we have more context for why we pleasure binge and ignore deeper well-being, we may find clearer pathways to engaging with deeper meaning.

Feels Good ≠ Good For You

Let’s practice these happiness traps with examples from childhood. We will be playing the adult seeking to guide them toward a more balanced well-being.

Match the child’s happiness to the trap they are stuck in.

Scenario A

Even though dinner time is approaching and they were told to only have one piece, a child eats a bunch of candy, which spoils their appetite and leaves them with a tummy ache.

Scenario B

It’s a beautiful day outside, but this video game is pretty fun. The child would rather stay inside where it is comfortable.

Scenario C

During free time, most kids either look for bugs or play with LEGOs. This child doesn’t really mind bugs or LEGOS, but doesn’t love either. They are a little bored, but unsure what to do.

A→1, B→2, C→3

Answers Explained:

ATrap #1
As an adult, we know that there are downsides to unmitigated treats. An upset stomach is an obvious repercussion, but so is the missed opportunity for a nutritious dinner.

Happiness We Chase explores pleasure-seeking and how it can leave us feeling sick, empty, numb, or twitchy. Importantly, we are not critiquing pleasure when it doesn’t hinder meaning. Like a parent who cares about their child’s nutrition, we aren’t saying ‘no candy ever’ but ‘not candy always’. We can certainly enjoy candy, but candy to the detriment of nutritious food is a major hindrance to healthy living.

B→Trap #3
As an adult, we can speculate that if the child turned off their game and played outside, they would probably have a great time. Turning off the game would certainly spur discomfort for the child, but it would enrich their well-being.

Happiness that Satisfies explores how we can become trapped by our own happiness in life and how we may never realize we forfeited a richer option because we are too lost in what we already have. Like a parent who knows well-being exists beyond the comfortable couch, we must push ourselves to maintain a curiosity and excitement for deeper well-being, even when life feels pretty good.

C→Trap #2
As an adult, we can see that neither LEGOs nor bugs are really exciting the child. The child is operating from a dichotomy that isn’t as solid as it may seem. Asking to play something else with a friend or figuring out what bugs/LEGOs could unlock might open a whole new world of possibilities.

Happiness We Settle For explores how we can settle into just-okay jobs, friends, relationships, or any other number of things. When we ignore what constrains our well-being we settle for a lesser happiness. Like a parent who wants their child to fully enjoy their free time, we need to take the time to analyze what is actually contributing to our well-being, what is taking away from it, and what is in our power to change.

Happiness as a Hindrance How Happiness Acts as a Hindrance Happiness Traps When Happiness Stagnates Us Overcoming Happiness as a Hindrance