The Search for Happiness Can Lead to Unhappiness

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In the quest for happiness for ourselves and our clients, we pursue self-improvement, personal achievements, and the accumulation of material possessions.

But what if this emphasis impairs our ability to find it?

The illusion of the self-centered pursuit of happiness

From an early age, we are taught the importance of setting and striving to achieve personal goals. Whether getting good grades, landing a dream job, or owning a fancy car, we are conditioned to believe these achievements will bring us happiness.

There’s some support for this belief. Some studies have found that pursuing personal goals leads to increased happiness in the short term.

A materialistic culture

Our consumer-driven culture bombards us with messages linking happiness to acquiring material possessions. Advertisements suggest that owning the latest gadgets or designer clothing will make us happier and more fulfilled. But compelling research suggests that material possessions are less fulfilling than positive experiences and relationships.

The self-centered pursuit of happiness

While pursuing personal goals and material possessions can lead to short-term happiness, there are several reasons why this approach falls short of providing lasting contentment.

The hedonic treadmill

Psychologists refer to the phenomenon of the "hedonic treadmill," which describes our tendency to adapt quickly to new circumstances, both positive and negative. This means that even when we achieve our goals or acquire new possessions, the happiness they bring tends to be temporary. Soon, we return to our baseline level of joy, and the pursuit of the next goal or possession begins.

Social comparison and FOMO

The modern era of social media exacerbates our focus on the self and our constant need for validation. We compare our lives to carefully curated images of others, often leading to feelings of inadequacy and envy. The fear of missing out (FOMO) drives us to seek more experiences and possessions, believing they will bring us the happiness we see in others.

The neuroscience behind self-centered pursuits

Neuroscience sheds light on the limitations of self-centered pursuits and their relationship to happiness. Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has provided valuable insights into the neural processes associated with self-centeredness.

The reward system and dopamine

When we achieve personal goals or acquire possessions, our brain's reward system, primarily driven by the release of dopamine, lights up with pleasure. But this reward response can be addictive, leading to a constant pursuit of more, as the same level of satisfaction becomes more challenging to achieve. This neurobiological mechanism underlies the "more is better" mentality.

Shifting focus from self to others

Where should we redirect our efforts if the self-centered pursuit of happiness has limitations? The answer lies in focusing on the happiness of others through acts of kindness, empathy, and selflessness.

The science of altruism

Altruism, the practice of selflessly helping others, has been a subject of fascination for psychologists and neuroscientists alike. Research using fMRI scans revealed that when we engage in acts of charity and kindness, our brains show increased activity in the reward centers. Remarkably, the pleasure derived from helping others was similar to the pleasure associated with personal gain.

The power of empathy

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, plays a crucial role in promoting happiness, both for the giver and the receiver. Studies have shown that practicing empathy leads to greater emotional well-being and stronger interpersonal connections.

Empathy fosters a sense of belonging and purpose beyond the self-centered pursuit of personal happiness.

Meaningful relationships

Research has consistently shown one of the most significant predictors of happiness is the quality of our relationships. Meaningful connections and a sense of belonging contribute immensely to our well-being. By focusing on the happiness of others and nurturing these relationships, we create a positive feedback loop of happiness in our lives.

The paradox of selflessness

While it may seem paradoxical, pursuing happiness through selflessness and a focus on the happiness of others often leads to greater personal contentment. Here's why:

The positive-feedback loop

When we engage in acts of kindness and empathy, not only do we bring joy to others, but we also experience a sense of fulfillment and happiness ourselves. This positive feedback loop reinforces our commitment to selflessness, creating a continuous cycle of contentment.

Reduced stress and anxiety

Self-centered pursuits can lead to stress and anxiety, as the constant desire for more and the fear of not measuring up take their toll. In contrast, acts of kindness and empathy have been shown to reduce stress and improve overall mental well-being.

A sense of purpose

Shifting our focus from self to others gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Knowing that our actions can positively impact someone else's well-being gives our lives greater significance and direction.

Practical steps to embrace selflessness

Here are some suggestions to incorporate this selfless approach into our lives:

Random acts of kindness

Make a conscious effort to perform small acts of kindness daily, whether holding the door for someone, complimenting a colleague, or helping a neighbor.


Dedicate some of your time to volunteering for a passionate cause. The act of giving back can be gratifying.

Cultivate empathy

Develop empathy by actively listening to others, trying to understand their perspective, and showing genuine concern for their well-being.

Nurture relationships

Invest time and effort in building and maintaining meaningful relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. These connections are a constant source of happiness.

Practice mindfulness

Incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine to reduce self-centered thinking and increase your awareness of others' needs and emotions. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and even help cope with pain.

Final thoughts

The key to a more fulfilling and content life is shifting our focus from the self to the happiness of others through acts of kindness, empathy, and selflessness. The paradox of selflessness reveals that by bringing joy to others, we can find profound happiness within ourselves.

To buy a copy of Dan's book, The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read: The Proven Way to Beat the "Pros" and Take Control of Your Financial Future, click here.

Dan coaches evidence-based financial advisors on how to convert more prospects into clients. His digital marketing firm is a leading provider of SEO, website design, branding, content marketing, and video production services to financial advisors worldwide.

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