The Happiness Trap

How happy are you now? How is it compared with yesterday? With last week? As it turns out, comparing happiness, even of the same person at different times, is tricky. Why? Because our experiences change our view of happiness.
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert explains how our experiences change our view of happiness:

Studies such as these demonstrate that once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened… Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see.

The question is: how do our experiences change our view of happiness? One good explanation is the experience-stretching hypothesis:

We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that “they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing.” Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing.

Here is an example. Years ago I would be very happy to get a computer without an Internet connection because I didn’t know how good the Internet is. But now that I do, I would be far less happy if I just got a computer without an Internet connection. My experience of using the Internet has changed my view of happiness. It has stretched my scale of happiness. While in the past getting just a computer would make me happy at the scale of 8 out of 8, now it would be only 4 out of 8. Only by getting an Internet connection along with the computer would I reach an 8.
I can see that this hypothesis is true in my life and I expect it to also be true in yours. There are many experiences that have stretched my scale of happiness. They make me see happiness differently because I now have different expectations.
However, I see a dangerous trap here: what if you experience something that feels very good in the short term but is actually harmful in the long term? The hypothesis says that once you taste it, you won’t be as happy without it. The better it feels, the far less happy you would be without it.
This explains addictions well. Why is it difficult to get rid of an addiction? Because the short term experience is so good that you feel a big pain if you don’t have it. It has changed your view of happiness. You’ve tasted how good it is and now you can no longer be happy without it. The fact that it’s harmful in the long term doesn’t change anything because your future happiness is abstract while your current happiness is concrete.
It also explains why it is difficult to get rid of a bad habit. It might not have become an addiction, but if you feel that you lose something by not doing it, you will most likely continue doing it. It will become a habit, a bad habit.
So how can we overcome this? The best strategy is to prevent your view of happiness from being distorted in the first place. If you know of something that people say is good but you know is harmful in the long term, run away from it. Don’t ever try it. Not even once. You might think that you can handle it, but once you are caught, it will be very difficult for you to escape.
Photo by whatmegsaid


  1. Are you sure that it’s your experience of happiness that’s stretching? Isn’t it actually your desires that are stretching?
    The actual experience of happiness remains the same, regardless of whether it’s due to getting a new train as a child or a new car as an adult – they both make you the same level of happy, regardless of the price tag!
    However, if you can only find happiness through the satisfaction of desires then you’re in for a “stretching” experience, because it’s in the nature of humans to always want more. eg: Once we get that new job, we want a new car, and then the new house, and pretty soon it’s a new boat… etc.
    Surely the happiness trap is in believing that happiness can only be found through satisfying desires?

  2. Very true words. Really our experience change our views of happiness. I haven’t thought about it before. Thanks a lot for this!

  3. It doesn’t make sense to run away from things that may stretch your experience of happiness. Would you, if you had another chance, forego the internet? How about if and when you have your first child, are you going to run away from that too?
    I think the answer must lie somewhere else, not in running away things that could stretch your happiness range.

  4. Donald: Very interesting point and so true. We really can change our perception on events and ultimately impact our happiness. I think we just have to realize that is the case and then continually chose to do so. Once we become accustomed to perceiving things from the best perspective, we get better and better at it and ultimately our happiness increases. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  5. This an insightful article for sure and you touched the heart of the subject of happiness.

  6. Hi Donald,
    A nice article, which made me smile, since I posted a blog yesterday which includes a TED video of Dan Gilbert!
    Although the video was made in 2004, 3 years before Stumbling on Happiness was published, there are aspects of it that complement your post and mentions some additional dangers… 😉

  7. I think that in our pursuits for happiness, we actually make life harder and more complicated than it needs to be. We think that we need all this STUFF to make us happy, yet all that really does is make life more challenging.
    I love to go to the riding stables and visit with the horses in the pasture. They are so content to simply be outside, frolick with one another, taking an occasional role in the sand and resting peacefully as needed. It’s mesmerizing and easily reminds me that all I need to do is simply “be” to ENJOY this amazing experience of life.

  8. Wonderful insight! I love what you said about not distorting one’s image of happiness. I think it all boils down to understanding what the person’s underlying values are. What are the experiences that he wants to get out of something? This would help him focus on the long-term effects of his actions. If an individual knows what his underlying values are, it will allow him to focus on what’s important to him in the long run.

  9. Indeed it’s one of the best your articles. So true!

  10. Although I have not fully mastered the principle, I still would like to believe that happiness is an issue of self-mastery. In other words, mastery of our thoughts, Everything begins with thought.
    If some experiences change our view of happiness, it is because we come to accept that that is our new standard of happiness. We THINK that is how we should be happy. But we can think otherwise. It is our choice.
    People should train themselves in the mastery of thought and in the practice of self-denial. If we accept the view that some experiences would change our view of happiness, then we relinquish control of our happiness to external circumstances.
    Habits are difficult to change because they are ingrained in our nervous system. The condition of the body has a part in this difficulty. For an ordinary person, this is a herculean job. But one who has complete self-mastery will see this as no obstacle.

  11. Michael,
    Perhaps some examples would make the idea clearer, but I don’t have the room for them here. If you could get the book, they are on page 54-57. Of course, you may disagree with the author.
    You’re welcome. I myself realize it only recently after reading Stumbling on Happiness.

    Would you, if you had another chance, forego the internet? How about if and when you have your first child, are you going to run away from that too?

    Of course not. The statement applies only to things that are harmful in the long term. That’s the context of the trap I’m talking about. One example is smoking. You know that it’s harmful in the long term, so you should avoid it. Some people, despite knowing that smoking is harmful in the long-term, still try it and eventually become addicted.
    The book says that your experience automatically changes your perception of happiness, often without you being aware of it. But that’s an interesting point you bring up.
    Is it? I haven’t watched the video. Looks like I should watch it 🙂
    Yes, contentment is essential for happiness.

    If an individual knows what his underlying values are, it will allow him to focus on what’s important to him in the long run.

    I agree with you.
    Thanks 🙂
    Interesting point. I agree that we can think otherwise, but it seeems that an experience with big short-term incentive will make it very difficult for most people to do that.

  12. Hi,
    I have found this article quite thought-inspiring. I think it also applies to relationships – if we, say, read about a “happily ever after” romantic novel with impossibly high standards of compatibility, we may never feel truly happy in a relationship that is realistically quite good. We can often become trapped without really experiencing it – we can become trapped by just believing there should be more to it.
    To avoid this kind of dissatisfaction, education could perhaps prove most helpful. Setting realistic goals should be of importance here. Always comparing ourselves and others to impossible standards is merely setting us up for failure.
    Great post, very rich and inspiring.
    Gayathri Moosad

  13. The belief that people can’t be happy because they don’t know what they are missing is very subjective based in another’s individual belief on what happiness in a particular situation means to them, or what their values are. We can’t project our meaning of happiness on to others. There are also varying levels of happiness.
    It seems that happiness is sometimes perceived to be ‘one size fits all’ & that often it relates to possessions – I’m happy to see the sunrise every day as I walk along the beach. Now, what does that make you think off? I bet you’ve created a subjective mental picture of my lifestyle – a perception based on the sort of lifestyle makes, or would make, you happy.
    And for what purpose do we need to be happy all the time? There are so many other emotions that we can experience -yes, some of them are unpleasant, but they are a fact of life and to deny them is denying the richness of life.
    Great post for debate Donald

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