It’s not wise to devalue happiness

Everyone wants to be happy – or do they?


In truth, it’s a bit simplistic to say everyone wants to be happy. Many people have negative beliefs about happiness.


For example, research confirms that in both Western and non-Western cultures, some people believe being happy makes you a morally worse person.


Some people, particularly artistic people, associate unhappiness or sadness with creativity, and tend to see happiness as bland or boring.


Other people, particularly anxious people, are prone to thinking that there is a danger is being too happy, that positive experiences must invariably be followed by negative experiences, that joy must be followed by sadness.


Of course, many will reject the above ideas, seeing happiness as a positive thing. However, that doesn’t mean we do not devalue happiness in their daily lives. Prof Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, argues persuasively that most of us tend to devalue happiness because we have been conditioned to do so since childhood. Indeed, he gives an example where he almost caught himself coaching his own son to devalue happiness.


When his son was three years old, he wanted a little toy car that he had seen used by another boy in his neighbourhood. Raghunathan ordered the toy for his son, and it soon arrived in a big brown box. His son was initially delighted, but lost interest after just three days. After that, he only wanted to play with the brown box that the car arrived in! What was so special about the box? The boy was infatuated with a cartoon character who apparently lived in a box, so he wanted to do the same thing.


‘I remember being quite upset about this’, writes Raghunathan. ‘I wanted my son to play with the car because (dammit!) it cost more’. But then it struck him that he was trying to get his son to give greater priority to value for money than to happiness. Once he paused and thought about it, he realised it shouldn’t matter how his son was having fun, as long as he was.


‘I also realised that it is precisely because we tell our children what to value – money, value for money, status, beauty, power, etc – that they learn to lose sight of what makes them truly happy.’


Raghunathan also recognised that he was not the only person from whom his son would learn the ‘rules for living’ – he would learn them from other sources too. ‘He too, like the rest of us, will grow up to be conditioned to devalue happiness’.



It brings to mind an anecdote I have told before, one related by happiness expert and Professor of Behavioural Science Paul Dolan in his book Happiness by Design. A close friend of Dolan’s worked for a prestigious media company. Over dinner, she ‘basically spent the whole evening describing how miserable she was at work’, complaining about her boss, her colleagues, and her commute.


Dolan adds: ‘At the end of dinner, and without a hint of irony, she said, “Of course, I love working at MediaLand”’.


Dolan’s friend had bought into a social narrative of success, one that values status and recognition. As he points out, a job that makes you miserable is not a good job, but we can convince ourselves it is if it is a high-status job.


We often, says Dolan, ‘pay more attention to what we think should make us happy rather than focusing on what actually does’. His friend loved the idea of working at MediaLand, but the reality of it was very different. As a result, she was less happy in her daily life than she could have been.


There’s a quote often attributed to John Lennon (perhaps wrongly, but anyway) that captures how mistaken it is to devalue happiness. ‘When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.’

(First published in Southern Star on 18/1/2024).