The Happiness Conundrum

I believe the very way in which we define "happiness" is limiting our ability to live it.

The best place to understand this is in science. There aren’t a great deal of studies being done on happiness yet. It seems to be a topic that due to its relative nature, is hard to quantify. At the very core of these studies lies the problem of how do you measure happiness?

Most studies use a question like, “How satisfied are you with your life?” I think this question captures the modern idea of happiness well. We think of happiness as a measure of satisfaction with life.

What is Satisfaction?


“Fulfilment of one’s wishes, expectations or needs, or the pleasure derived from this.”

This definitions tells us that satisfaction is when things go our way. When the world bends to our desires of how we wished it to be.

Abiding by this definition, if we wish to be happy, then we must learn to mould the world to our desire. This seems promising because we have a surplus of self-help books instructing us how to achieve this. Matter of factly, one could say that we are in the Age of Success, the era where success is held above all else, above outdated notions of good and evil.

So to achieve happiness we turn to the countless authors who have documented the steps to mastering success. We learn to understand our environment so we can master it; learn to understand people, so we can get what we want from them. We learn to use our willpower to achieve what we want.

So fast-forward five years, now we are successful. Now we have warped reality to suit our wishes. We have money. We have freedom.

Now what?

Well now we need more of that. We need more money, we need more freedom. This isn’t per say because we are greedy, but because we are human. The Hedonic Treadmill is the term used to describe this phenomenon. As humans our ability to feel pleasure (non-physical) is relative. As we have more pleasure in life, our baseline for pleasure adjusts, hence requiring more pleasure to sustain the same amount of happiness.

The better we get at bending reality to our desires, the more we desire. We have a conundrum. Our very definition of “satisfaction” has led us down an infinite stairwell. We keep walking down (since we have no other path), and yet the further we walk the further there seems still to go.

“I don’t want to live the life of a [Porsche] Boxster, because when you have a Boxster you wish you had a 911, and you know what people who have a 911s wish they had? They wish they had a Ferrari.” – James Hong

James made a bunch of money selling his HotOrNot company in 2008. He is no billionaire but he doesn’t want to be. He is clearly aware of the Hedonic Treadmill effect. That unless you stop chasing your unchecked satisfactions, they will continue to spiral downwards out of control.

If Not Satisfaction Then What?

To free ourselves from the Happiness Conundrum, I believe we need to redefine what Happiness means. We need a definition that has an implicit path to attainment.

The problem with “satisfaction” as a definition of happiness is its passive nature. Satisfaction is a reflection of how well the external world suits our desires. The power lies out of our control, in the uncertain world.

We need a definition that shifts the onus of happiness into our own hands, a definition that puts us in control of our own fate.

Let us try another definition for happiness, one that I discuss more deeply in my upcoming book, Living Happiness. “How much do you appreciate your life overall?”

How about "Appreciation"?

The shift from “satisfaction” to “appreciation” seems insignificant. If anything, at first, it seems even more flimsy and uncertain.

There is an age old story that makes this difference more apparent:

There was a rich king who was wealthy beyond his means. He had everything that money could buy. However, this king was constantly searching for the happiness that evaded him.

One day the king went to a famously wise monk and said, “Monk, I have all the world’s wealth but no happiness. Tell me the secret to happiness, I will do anything you say.”

The monk smiled and replied, “Sell of all your assets and convert them to the highest quality gems and jewels. Then bring them back to me in exactly one month.”

The king went away and sold all his land and gold, converting it into the highest quality jewels and gems. A month later he returned to the monk carrying the bag with all his wealth contained. “Monk, here I am and I have done as you asked, now show me the secret to happiness!”

The monk approached the King who was holding his precious bag of wealth and quickly yanked the bag from the King’s grip and disappeared into the forest before the King could chase him.

The King lamented in despair over his lost fortune and the cheating monk who robbed him. He now had no wealth, no power, nothing. He was destined to be a poor beggar for the rest of his life.

As he lamented over his poor fate, the monk appeared behind him placing the bag by his side. The King jumped up in surprise and snatched up his bag of wealth crying, “You scoundrel, you thief, you stole everything from me, cheating me out of all my wealth! I was in despair having lost my wealth!” He looked inside the bag to check it’s contents were still there, “Ahh, I am a saved man! My wealth has been restored to me, I shall not be a poor beggar after all! Why did you do this wise Monk?”

The Monk laughed and said, “You came to me with no happiness and a bag full of jewels. I have given back to you what you already had, yet now you have happiness too.”

Why did the king lack happiness originally with his wealth, power and easy life? He lacked happiness because he lacked appreciation. His situation did not change before and after; all that changed was how he viewed his life; his appreciation for life.

A Powerful Redefinition

Appreciation moves the onus of happiness into our hands. We can practice appreciation every day by actively seeking what is right with the world around us. This is powerful because there is now a direct and actionable path to increasing our happiness; increase our appreciation for life.

I believe this “redefinition” of happiness is extremely powerful, after all, it is our definitions of the world around us that shape how we experience life.

What do you think, does defining happiness through appreciation make it more accessible?


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

One Comment

  1. Great Monk story to help make the message clearer. A very good definition of happiness.

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