I am far from the first philosopher, psychologist, or everyday person to contemplate the meaning of happiness. So in the course of my reading and ruminating, I’ve come across a lot of other people’s opinions and scientific findings. A lot of it has broadened my knowledge base in this area and given me new things to think about — and has certainly helped me in my quest to deepen my own happiness — but I’ve come across three philosophies in particular that I just don’t buy.

Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder …

– Henry David Thoreau

(Thoreau also believed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, which I also don’t buy.) Actually, I’ve found the opposite is true: the more I pursue happiness, the more I find it. I also don’t think that turning your attention to other things means that you’re not chasing happiness: that is how one chases happiness. Being honest about your intentions — “I’m reading more novels/getting more sleep/spending more time with my friends because I want to be a happier person” — won’t negate their effect.

Somehow I just don’t remember this being a miserable afternoon.

Hell is other people.

– Sartre

Now this is just silly. Yes, there are times when I have totally thought this was a cold, hard fact (like when I get stuck behind a slow driver or had to deal with a difficult client or coworker), but really, I’ve found the opposite is true. The key is in investing in meaningful relationships and not a series of shallow, superficial friendships. (Not taking other people’s stupidity personally — maybe it’s called giving them the benefit of the doubt even when I don’t want to — also helps a lot.) My close friends and family have had a huge impact on my overall level of happiness, particularly over the last year and a half. Mostly this quote just makes me feel bad for poor Jean-Paul; he must not have had very many good friends.

Let alone friends who would take their party hats so seriously.

Even athletic apparel companies have opinions on what makes us happy:

The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.

Lululemon Athletica’s manifesto

Oh Lulu. Oh Chip Wilson. I may spend too much time pre-shopping for all the fancy workout gear I’m going to buy once I can wear normal clothes again, and you may make an amazing yoga mat, but … no. This doesn’t even make sense. It takes Thoreau’s assertion that happiness is ever-elusive to an extreme — seeking out happiness actually makes you unhappy. But that just makes me ask, then, why do we bother doing the things we like? If seeking out happiness actually makes us unhappy, what’s the point of doing anything that makes us happy? Wouldn’t it just wind up making us miserable in the end?

(Lululemon’s manifesto is full of little gems like that — don’t get me started on their belief that “stress is related to 99% of all illness”. OH REALLY. Good thing they make such high-quality products …)


While I mostly prefer to find little gems of wisdom that make me stop and say yes! that’s it!, finding philosophies I don’t agree with is just as helpful. When trying to determine what I do believe in this area, knowing what I don’t believe is a good place to start.