Happiness might seem like a noble goal – but striving for it can be counterproductive

Who doesn’t want to be happy? At the end of the day, you might think, it’s happiness that matters most – it’s the reason for everything we do. This idea goes back to classical antiquity. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whatever we pursue in life – “honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue” – we choose “for the sake of happiness” since happiness “is the end of action”. Around this all-consuming aim we’ve built a multibillion-dollar industry: self-help.

Not that there haven’t been critics. “Humanity does not strive for happiness,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped, “only the English do.” He was making fun of utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for whom the point of morality is to achieve the greatest happiness for all. The irony is that Mill, too, had doubts about the pursuit of happiness. As he saw, the craze for contentment threatens to subvert itself.

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