• Ciaran Burks

On Happiness III : Happiness Misconceptions


We’ve discussed how we commonly mis-predict the effects of events or things will have on our happiness. We examined one specific example, predictions around getting a job. This misprediction stems from several cognitive biases that we all share. They can be overcome, to a reasonable extent, with the tools we discussed in the activity at the end of chapter 2. However, there are misconceptions surrounding happiness that may or may not apply to you. We all have idiosyncratic ideas of happiness, its nature and its causes. In this chapter, we will examine some of those common misconceptions. It is likely that you share, partially or completely, in at least some of them. By understanding these misconceptions, and illustrating the scientific findings, I hope that we can change how we approach our pursuit of happiness and find our lives more rewarding as a result.


Happiness, like politics, is often divisive. On the one-hand, drowsy hippies might say things like “it’s all about living in the moment, maaaaan. You just have to feel that energy and embrace it, you know”. On the other hand, ruthless, type-A businesspeople might spout aphorisms like “Life’s not fair! You just have to suck it up and put in the blood, sweat and tears. Then, if you’ve worked hard enough, you’ll get your rewards!”


More moderate commentators, my mother for example, always gave me advice to “marry my best friend. Being in love fades but friendship lasts.” Yours might have given you the same advice. Popular wisdom says much about happiness, some of it useful and some of it destructive. I have attempted to parse the most common conceptions of the nature of happiness and its causes. These conceptions can be explicit, such as a quote or statement. Examples include the social-media-favourite “happiness is a journey, not a destination”. Others are implicit, never formally stated or scrutinised, only accepted. Implicit concepts of happiness are embedded in spiritual or religious practice, Disney mythology, hierarchies of values and societal norms. Examples include the persistent idea of the “perfect” or “successful” life. Written out, the “perfect” life has the following elements (in chronological order).


The 10 steps to living the successful life!


1. Excel at school (get good grades and/or be a sport’s star)

2. Apply to and get accepted at the best (most expensive) college/s

3. Work hard and get good grades

4. Land an internship at whatever law/consulting/medical/financial/engineering firm is most prestigious (pays the most)

5. Accept an offer for a high-paying entry-level job that will guarantee you a bright financial future

6. Work 8-10-hour days (on average, some are likely longer) for 20-30 years, proving your “value” to the firm and getting promoted to partner, or some equivalent high-paying executive position

7. While doing this, get married and have 1-3 kids

8. Raise your kids with your working husband/wife while climbing the corporate ladder

9. Hope that a global pandemic, financial crisis or world war doesn’t destroy everything you have worked for

10. Retire at age 65 and relax, you’ve earned it


Let me make a few things clear. I am absolutely, categorically, not saying that this template has not made some (even many) people very happy. I am not saying that having a stable financial position is not important, because it is important. I am not saying that having kids is a bad idea, I certainly want a couple of the rascals. What I am saying, is that this 10-bullet script is running many lives in an unconscious, uncritical, unintentional, and possibly unhappy way. This chapter aims at casting a light on the shadow of the unconscious script. This chapter will empower you by revealing the misconceptions of happiness, so that you do not fall victim to their purveyors. I am anxious to move on from misconceptions, misunderstandings and miscalculations, so I promise, in the next chapter we will be exploring what we can do to be happier – instead of knowing what not to do.

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© 2020 by Ciaran Burks