Michael Cote, CC 2.0
Source: Michael Cote, CC 2.0

Alison Gopnik is ranked among today's most influential psychologists . She is Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor in Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Also, she writes the Minds and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, and her column, “Does Evolution Want Us Unhappy?” begins:

"Samuel Johnson called it (happiness) the vanity of human wishes, and Buddhists talk about the endless cycle of desire. Social psychologists say we get trapped on a hedonic treadmill. What they all mean is that we wish, plan and work for things that we think will make us happy but when we finally get them, we aren't nearly as happy as we thought we'd be."

That column concludes, "Should I try to be better off objectively even if I don't feel any happier? …Or would it be better to defy evolution, step off the treadmill of desire and ambition and just rest serenely at home in Buddhist contentment?"

Give up on the pursuit of happiness, that most hallowed of goals, enshrined even in the Declaration of Independence?

Gopnik specifically calls-out hedonism, “the endless cycle of desire," “the treadmill” of seeking ever greater pleasures, whether through shopping, ever more out-there sex, drugs, or adrenaline highs. Her skepticism that such actions abet the life well-led are unarguable. Pursuing those usually and quickly results in alienation—“Is that all there is?”

But should we also abandon the pursuit of career happiness? Being happier on the job usually means we’re better at it, and/or less annoyed by it, and thus will do more good. Of course, career happiness isn't necessarily found in a prestigious career. After all, many people kill themselves to become lawyers yet there are many unhappy barristers. Even many rock stars are miserable: in and out of rehab, even committing suicide.

Should we not even strive to find ways to be happier on the job but instead just, as Gopnik ponders, be Buddhist about it all—Be in the moment and accept what the world bestows with Dalai Lama-ish equanimity? Sounds like a formula not only for unhappiness and unproductivity but for getting “laid off.”

How about relationships? Pursue them only with regard to their utility: S/he’s got money, s/he'll take care of me in my old age, etc." Forget love, let alone fun?

Speaking of which, what about recreation? That, by definition, is about happiness. Is it really wise to forgo that?

And if the pursuit of happiness is fruitless, should we thus focus only on contribution, whether it makes us happy or not? That sounds like The Scarlet Letter’s Calvinist Reverend Dimmesdale.

But just maybe, that's worth considering. After all, I can’t imagine Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, was happy living in steaming stench with her ankles bitten by scorpions in that oven called Calcutta. Yet few would think she lived a life poorly led.

The takeaway

So as Gopnik asks, should your primary goal be the pursuit of happiness? To forgo that in favor of Buddhist detachment? To strive for contribution even if it makes you less happy? Or aim for moderation?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.