Ways we can try to find happiness, but in the end they don’t seem to work

September 22nd, 2014 in Life. Tags: , , , , ,


I’ve long been interested in the science of what makes people happy, and what doesn’t, and have written about it often on this blog and website. It’s a subject of important research, and new studies and reports are appearing all the time.

Here’s the results of some significant studies that have been reported in the last few years. This post: what doesn’t deliver lasting happiness as much as we’d like. Next post: what works.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic goals

Intrinsic goals (for example, personal growth, relationships, community service) are personal aspirations that have value in themselves – they lead to actions that are their own reward. On the other hand, extrinsic goals (such as wealth, pleasure, and popularity) are external, and lead to actions which are not done for their own sake, but to receive an external reward.

A 2003 study confirmed earlier work that intrinsic goals lead to long term happiness and satisfaction because they satisfy innate psychological needs, whereas extrinsic goals are more likely to lead to dissatisfaction, anxiety and unhappiness because they depend on others for their success and tend to make people feel insecure.

Money can’t buy me love

Money is obviously an extrinsic goal – people do all sorts of other things, from community service and other worthwhile jobs to crime, to get money. Earning money is a necessary part of life, and living in poverty is not a happy life. But making wealth our main aim generally doesn’t make us happy though it can bring short term pleasure.

  • People who make wealth a high priority are much more likely to be anxious, depressed, sick and more frequent drug users.
  • People in richer countries feel that life has less meaning (compared to those in poorer countries) and have higher suicide rates.
  • People who seek wealth tend never to satisfied, but to want a little more.
  • Psychologist Ed Diener: “Materialism is toxic to happiness.”

Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll?


No-one doubts that good sex gives pleasure and happiness, and more. But sex most contributes to our satisfaction and happiness in life when it is part of marriage or a stable relationship.

  • A stable marriage is one of the important ingredients of a happy life.
  • A study of sex and happiness found that the happiest people had only one sexual partner in the previous year.

We all know that alcohol and other drugs offer short term relief from unhappiness, but one long-term study of men showed that, beyond the obvious short term effects, alcohol abuse has “great destructive power” throughout life:

  • Alcoholism was “the single strongest cause of divorce”.
  • Alcoholism was also found to be strongly coupled with neurosis and depression (which most often follows alcohol abuse, rather than preceding it).
  • Together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism was the #1 greatest cause of morbidity and death.
Rock ‘n’ roll?

I don’t actually have any information on the effects of rock ‘n’ roll on happiness, so I’ll just guess that while it may cause premature deafness and is often associated with sex and drugs, music is nevertheless a positive force in most people’s lives. But that’s just a guess.


Popularity and fame are also extrinsic goals, and very fickle too. The reports I’ve read suggest that, while relationships are extremely important for life satisfaction, we are happiest with a small circle of good friends. Seeking wider popularity and fame tends to make us insecure and therefore less happy.


Psychologist Todd Kashdan: “as people place more importance on being happy, they become more unhappy and depressed. The pressure to be happy makes people less happy.”

This makes sense in the light of the psychological effects of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.

Givers vs takers

Another way to sum this up is in terms of giving and taking. If we are willing to give, to people, to our communities, to life, we will be seeking intrinsic goals which have psychological benefits. But if we seek extrinsic goals like pleasure and wealth, we are more likely to be selfish ‘takers’ who are never satisfied for long, and don’t achieve contentment or a meaningful, happy life.

Just like grandma said

All this sounds like the sort of moralistic advice that grandma might once have given us. But it comes from hard-nosed psychologists and researchers. Living more altruistically and selflessly really seems to ‘work’ and generally gives us a more fulfilled and happier life.

I must say, as a christian, I find this reassuring.

The real difficulties lie in (1) being willing and able to shrug off our selfish urges and the pressure of modern culture and advertising and actually believe these findings, then (2) being able to put them into practice.

But it’s surely worth it in the long run!

Next post

The things that make for a satisfying life.

Read more

Photo Credit: 4ELEVEN Images via Compfight cc


  1. @unkleE
    I’m not sure that increases in personal happiness in society is something you should be interested in. On a country by country basis it correlates well with levels of organic atheism. Or put another way, if a government manages to make its population happier on average it will probably also have reduced the level of religious commitment.

    NB There is a better correlation between existential anxiety and religion. See this story about Canadian researchers:
    This piece contains the somewhat damning phrase: “Religion, essentially, is a Third World phenomenon.”
    I see you feel reassured that the things that bring most happiness are in line with your religious beliefs. Perhaps that’s why modern Christianity is dying on the vine in Western well run countries. It values happiness apparently unaware it has nestled a viper to its bosom?

  2. Hi Gordon, you are touching on matters that will be in my next blog post. Thanks for your reference, it may be useful for that.

    As for your conclusions, you may find things aren’t as benign (from your viewpoint) as you suggest here! One of the difficulties in all this is that happiness is not used precisely the same in all studies – sometimes meaning more like (short term) pleasure and sometimes more like (long term) satisfaction and wellbeing. Wealthy western societies are good for the former but not the latter.

    I don’t think religion is declining in western societies because it emphasises happiness – in fact, as you will see, it is for the opposite reason! I was reassured because modern psychological research confirms many of the traditional (and christian) values.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. @unkleE
    I wouldn’t classify your examples of short term happiness as happiness at all. I think of it as personal gratification. Such experiences are not only short term but are ultimately unsatisfying and a distraction from more fruitful pursuits.

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