If you think that money, social media followers, or cosmetic surgery will bring sustained happiness, you might want to think again. Wealth, popularity, and beauty cannot guarantee satisfaction, often resulting in a crushing letdown for those who work so hard to achieve them. One does not have to look far for examples of successful musicians, artists, or entrepreneurs who are miserable despite their fame and fortune. Psychologists who study well-being argue that we look for happiness in all the wrong places: The meaningful life that eludes many of us has been hiding under our nose the whole time.
People have been striving to unlock the treasure chest of happiness for a long time. The secret was figured out long ago, independently by multiple cultures. For example, in ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that happiness emerges when we pursue eudaimonia, or the good life. The good life is not filled with fancy cars, diamond rings, and fur coats; rather, it is a flourishing life that is fueled by habits of excellence. These habits entail leading a life of honesty, humility, and doing right by others. A brand of compassion and generosity pays lasting dividends, whereas selfish indulgence is chump change.
Similar to Aristotle, many others have championed the idea that behaving virtuously is its own reward. Helping others helps us to feel good. We experience a gift of goodwill when we are charitable. We smile when we make another person laugh. These reciprocal exchanges are no accident: Our minds seem to be built this way. A specialized group of brain cells called mirror neurons makes us feel what another person is feeling. Mirror neurons evolved to help us navigate our social network—our community—which we depend on for survival. Researchers have proposed that mirror neurons make it possible for individuals to feel empathy and cooperate.
We often hear of evolution mischaracterized as a selfish framework based on “the survival of the fittest,” which has unfortunately led to pessimistic conclusions that life, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, is “nasty and brutish.” These sentiments dangerously detract from our equal capacities for kindness and collaboration. A truth that fails to get enough airtime is that we’ve evolved the ability to experience positive emotions for doing nonselfish things. Aristotle recognized that this inherent ability within us was the key to happiness.
The ancient Stoic philosophers would appear to agree. A principle tenant of Stoicism is that we should not worry about things outside of our control. The Stoics encouraged people to work hard for what they need and to accept their fate, whether good or bad, for it plays second fiddle to how we deal with it. In other words, we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our response to those events. Come what may, our power to remain a virtuous person can never be stolen from us.
The hands of fate may shape our life however they please, but happiness is always within our grasp.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Goals
As described in his 2022 book, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live, Kenneth M. Sheldon and colleagues have conducted studies validating that extrinsic goals, such as accumulating wealth, power, or fame, are far less likely to bring happiness and well-being than intrinsic goals, such as nourishing relationships, self-improvement, or community service.
Studies suggest that people wrongly believe extrinsic goals lead to happiness, which is not surprising given how popular culture glorifies them. But Sheldon argues that such extrinsic goal-seekers “are living with distorted beliefs about themselves and about the world: beliefs that do not encourage eudaimonic virtue, but instead encourage dominance and display.” In other words, sustained happiness comes from within; to believe that it comes from outside—in the form of status or paycheck—is a delusion.
We’re all too eager to weave the threads of extrinsic goals into a magic carpet, but it turns out to be a rug that will be pulled out from under our feet.
Happiness is not a destination that we reach—it is the road trip itself. Take care of your vehicle, be courteous to others on the road, and beware of the extrinsic goal offramps that will take you off course. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.”