The Happiness Trap


“Today’s middle class lives better than did the Royalty of not so long ago, and yet humans today don’t seem very happy.”
Russ Harris

Should happiness be our main goal in life? In the book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris makes a strong case against making happiness our goal. The book is based on an emerging psychotherapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This approach is founded on the idea that avoiding pain and seeking pleasurable emotions can actually decrease one’s quality of life in the long-term. Chasing pleasurable feelings distracts us from meaningful pursuits and long-term goals, keeping us on the hedonic treadmill. Western ‘feel-good’ consumer culture fuels this problem with its quick-fix ideology of pain-free solutions. One only needs to take a look at the ridiculous workout equipment produced over the years to get the idea (“Take the work out of your workout… If you can sit, you can get fit” – The Hawaii Chair)

The Happiness Trap is based on two opposing concepts of happiness: short term pleasures (hedonic), and meaningful fulfillment (the good life). Too much focus on the hedonic pain-avoiding route prevents individuals from attaining deeper fulfillment since the latter form of happiness requires a degree of pain. For a more in-depth discussion of meaningful suffering see my post on ‘Finding Meaning and Purpose’.

Psychologists like Russ Harris are contributing valuable practical insights to individuals who are unknowingly operating in ways that diminish their quality of life. Although this book may help individuals, ideas about happiness are based in culture and the opportunities individuals have at their disposal to pursue more fulfilling forms of happiness are socially institutionalized. The job of the sociologist is to diagnose the deficiencies of a social realm, and advocate for social arrangements that foster individual flourishing.   

The two opposed form of happiness described above can be found in Emile Durkheim’s landmark sociological text, Suicide. In the chapter on anomie, he distinguishes between two social states: insufficient social regulation and sufficient social regulation. The first is equated with hedonic forms of happiness, occurring in states of low social regulation.
Durkheim states that our individual desires are insatiable, requiring social regulation to provide a sense of direction and purpose whereby we can measure progress toward a goal.  Durkheim says, “to pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.” Living by the direction of our individual desires alone is a form of torment since he states, “inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.” Following individual desires alone amounts to fleeting pleasures which produce renewed anguish when one is met with the disappointment of remaining unfulfilled.

Durkheim’s concept of fulfilling happiness occurs when the individual is in a state of sufficient social regulation, whereby the social role places limits on an individual’s individual aspirations. Contrary to Karl Marx, Durkheim argues that economic class categorizations can actually contribute to individual happiness and social harmony:

“This relative limitation and the moderation it involves, make men contented with their lot while stimulating them moderately to improve it; and this average contentment causes the feeling of calm, active happiness, the pleasure in existing and living which characterizes health for societies
as well as for individuals.”

This leads Durkheim to a conclusion resembling the contemporary maxim that happiness is not about getting what you want, but about wanting what you have. It is not economic class that provides this happiness in individuals, but the regulatory force it provides. Similar regulatory forces can be found in the family, as well as one’s specific occupational role. The key is that 1) the individual feels a sense of fair compensation for their labor, and 2) that their labor is contributing to the collective. Without these elements, social regulation disintegrates into chaos or the despair of detachment from collective life.

When we see the word ‘happiness’ we must beware of the potential trap. We need to ask ourselves if the version of happiness presented will create flourishing, or keep us running on the infinite hedonic treadmill. Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” True happiness is not only the meaning and purpose of life, but it provides individuals with meaning and purpose. Finding meaning and purpose in collective life is essential if we are to avoid the happiness trap.


  1. Thank you for your interest. This has been my main interest for a while as well. Encouraging forms of social organization that promotes conscious interdependence over competitive independence may be one answer.

  2. In the 28 years that I have been “therapeutically” aware of my problems, I have avoided books and workbooks and talks, etc. However, this past winter I hit – so hard – that “bottom”, we talk about. I’m sure onlookers probably saw it more as a fluffy feather-bed… but it was hell, my hell. I didn’t have a clue. I went back to a therapist I had worked with years ago that probably saved my life then. He put me onto “Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life” by Steven Hayes, to begin with and that really started things rolling for me. I didn’t have a choice. Workbook? Book? Talk? Didn’t matter… I needed to go forward. Soon, someone put me in touch with “The Happiness Trap” and that’s been a great as well. I’m not happy. I fight happiness daily for whatever reason. My life has been one scary day after another since I can remember. Like I said, I didn’t know exactly what that meant until I was in my twenties. PTSD and the number of other issues that go along with it in my case suck. No doubt. Happiness is tough. I wonder if I will ever “accept” it. These two particular books have helped me more in the last 6-8 months than anything in the last 28…

    Oh… there is another point. I’ve never been suicidal. Interestingly. Gratefully, too, of course. I have been to the edge… to the bottom… felt that the world would be better without me, but never wanted to take my life – or have tried… I understand suicide. In ways, I respect it for what it is to people who have tried and succeeded.. But strong or weak??? It isn’t me.

    I don’t know exactly why I’m sharing that with you. I like your site a lot. Good luck with this. And… with your endeavors! Very, very valuable stuff!!!!!


    1. Hi Jami,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear about your daily struggle, but I’m glad to hear you have become “therapeutically aware” of your problems and found some useful resources in the ACT literature. I believe this emerging form of therapy has great potential in combination with exposure and mindfulness techniques. My own sociological perspective fits with many of the themes in The Happiness Trap, but rather than looking at specific therapeutic techniques, I’m interested in how societies contribute to the problems individuals face on a psychological level.

      Erich Fromm has written a great deal on how a society can be ill. He argues that humans have the basic need for “relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, the need for a sense of identity and the need for a frame of orientation and devotion.” He argued that Modern capitalism has contributed to the opposite of these needs through favouring capital at the expense of positive human relations. As Durkheim states, “The individual, free from all genuine social bonds, finds himself abandoned, isolated, and demoralized. Society becomes “a disorganized dust of individuals.”

      Therefore, with our unmet need for relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, and frame of orientation/ devotion, we seek individual market solutions to collective Ills. As Harris says, “The world is full of people who are trying to purchase self-confidence, or manufacture it, or who simply posture it.” But perhaps we can’t blame them; they are merely trying to cope with the symptoms of this collective ill.

      Of course my sociological perspective is not applicable to all cases of suffering since neural-chemical imbalances and individual traumas are very real and should be dealt with on the necessary biological or psychological levels.

      I’m glad you are able to connect with my writing and have found value in it.


      1. There is a specific reason that I work only with LCSWs and not psychotherapists.

        The world is mean place. I don’t say that because I have an illness. I say that because I see it in my classrooms everyday – every year. I saw it in the streets (literally) of Chicago when I lived there. In the group home I lived in. The hospitals, the out patient programs – of course. In my opinion it’s because the people shut each other down. I don’t really have the vocabulary or the knowledge to say it the way you and the authors of the books say it… but, I agree that there is a societal issue and it’s very interesting to me.

        I have an illness and so I take meds for it. I needed ACT last winter to help with those meds. I am sad a great deal of the time because of my illness. But, what saddens me more is how we treat one another in the world. Maybe it’s because of my illness, but I have a strong belief that there is a lot more to it. That is why I am so interested in what you do. Not because of my illness. I have seen what society can do to a person – myself and others.

  3. Society is disgraceful these days

    A buddhist will tell you giving with intent for reward has goals, loss, resentment, success but eventual failure.

    This is not true happiness in my opinion.

    Impermanent and wonder if those you give to all of a sudden refuse you or repudiate you.

    What happens when society shuns you

    Happiness is not possible then?

    I believe the ego and thought especially judgment is not present when we experience real happiness

    Real happiness can. Be. Experienced, carried. With. Us. Without this. Altruism, any of. It

  4. Altruism is a frequently misunderstood concept. It was never never meant to disregard reward. In game theory it is refers to win/win scenarios where the reward is shared. In sociology it refers to interdependence where an organization is more than the sum of its parts. Durkheim defined it as an action oriented toward an object external to the individual. Alturism is the glue that holds societies together. Without it, every individual would be at constant war with one another.

    1. Glad to hear you were able to overcome it.

      Whose source meaning comes from their social role? I would say virtually everyone’s – with perhaps the exception of the rare extreme monastic example. By “source of meaning” I mean a feeling a significance that comes with altruistic commitment to a cause or community. From my understanding of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, cause or community is a big part of the ‘commitment’ aspect.

      1. feeling a significance that comes with altruistic commitment to a cause or community,

        Please Steve this altruistic, loving kindness giving without regard for reward maybe as rare and extreme as monks in caves

        I know very few people in my life who match your goals

  5. Oh thank you, Guillian Beret is not permanent and with meditation, I walked out of rehab in six and a half weeks. The mind can accomplish many things. Having to focus to save my life, had many benefits as you can see. I am only trying to share them.
    but whose source meaning comes from their social role.

    This a buddhist will tell you is a prescription for loss, resentment and failure.

    What do we leave this planet with?

    That stuff is not that important,

    I will be interested if Matthieu Ricard will give you reason for introspection. Find out what true happiness is first, then work backwards

    In my opinion what you value as permanent, real, important is impermanent, transient and has many negative facets attached to them.

  6. So how does a Sociologist integrate modern neuroscience into its discipline.

    Modern applied neuroscience, “What fires together wires together”. Where we place attention grows where we with hold fades.

    How does sociology explain brain/mind chemistry and its relation to happiness.

    For me, I can be empty, that is all thought has faded, I am not concerned with approval, self worth, doubt or any judgment. I am present.

    In this space not matter what sociological scenario you dream up I can find happiness, be enthralled with whatever is in front of me.

    I need not be connected to anything, any job, career, position, status, home or country to experience joy, peace of mind or happiness.

    Achievement needs to be protected, guarded or you will lose it.

    If I covet nothing, I can be in this moment totally.

    What else do I need.

    All of us die, none of us know what is around the next bend in the river. Life can take your health, career from you in a second

    Where does sociology leave you then, if career and achievement are so important?.

    My practice leaves me with all I need to be happy.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about the paralysis, but glad you’re still able to thrive.

      I feel that your ability to detach from external conditions at such a high level is extremely rare. It is highly commendable, but it is not the current state of reality for most individuals who might be able to achieve some level of presence and use mindfulness techniques effectively, but whose source meaning comes from their social role. This is illustrated to a high degree in the soldier in combat, for example. You are right that the role is fleeting, and this is precisely the problem for many who loose their source of meaning after leaving the military.

      Unless we have a global population of enlightened individuals who have the ability to live monastically in complete cooperation with one another, I think sociology has a place. In the same way that the police will always be necessary so long as there is crime, sociology will be necessary so long as people derive meaning from social roles.

  7. Some of what these authors describe are impermanent and happiness can be found without them. A basic maslovs needs satisfied is sufficient.

    Robin Williams had Incredible iconic. Social interaction, so did Phillip Seymour Hoffman but they killed themselves.

    Not needing anyone’s approval or needing to judge life might be a more direct path to happiness.

    Happiness is found in only one time frame, now, this present moment. It is usually present when the ego is dormant or not dominating. Some of the most tortured lives have been the most fulfilling, most rewarding.

    How do you explain victor Frankl coming out of ausewitch and writing mans search for meaning?

    Happiness can be found in the midst of what some would judge suffering.

    Happiness is something we carry with us, it is not external, it has nothing to do with anything impermanent, job, career, status power , etc

    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree that the emphasis subjective detachment from external validation is important – as seen in eastern philosophies. I also agree that the emphasis on positive subjective orientation to internal purpose is important – as seen in Frankl and ACT therapies. But as a sociologist, I would have to disagree with the statement that, “it has nothing to do with anything impermanent, job, career, status power, etc” – especially the career aspect.

      Although Frankl emphasizes one’s internal orientation to external conditions, his own orientation was not conceived independent of social realities. He says,“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” His ‘why’ was informed by his career as a psychologist which provided a framework of meaning. This would be the same for Buddhist monks, for example, whose detachment from external validation is more than a practical technique for happiness, but a practice infused with tradition and community.

      Although I see ‘the social’ as foundational and necessary to happiness, I also believe it is the source if it’s opposite: despair. Despair, as Frankl says, is suffering without meaning. Lacking meaning is not necessary the fault of an individual’s lack of agency or failure of attitude; it can result from a social context that does not foster meaningful relations. One’s career or religion can provide a context for meaning, but it can also do the opposite is it encourages the pursuit of individualism at the expense of fostering a sense of community.

      In sum, I agree with philosophies of ego detachment (eastern) and positive internal orientation (Frankl), but also argue that these philosophies would not provide existential meaning if it were not for their foundation in the social realm of meaning.

      1. as a sociologist, I would have to disagree with the statement that, “it has nothing to do with anything impermanent, job, career, status power, etc” – especially the career aspect.

        Ur discipline limits u and creates barriers to true happiness, my humble opinion.

        Also thanks for the dialogue and willingness to engage in a healthy way.

        I am responsible for effort, if I never succeed, enduring without altering my effort and enthusiasm for life is all I need.

        I have to disagree with u on Frankl. Any man surviving then thriving out of a concentration camp needs not psychology career or exec position to have peace of mind to live fully.

        How do you explain why some of the most impoverished lives have happiness

        Careers are what we compete and place effort into not who we are.

        What happens when u lose that job, get sick, get in an accident

        I have been paralyzed in the last two years with Guillian beret but that was a positive experience for me. I found peace and me inside suffering and focus.

        I could be happy as could many monks in solitude, isolation for Periods of time

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