Sunday, May 26, 2013


I was reading a Huffington Post article last week and came across a new concept that sparked my interest.  The article ( was called "Does Trying to Be Happy Make Us Unhappy?"  The author, Adam Grant, talked about something called obliquity.  The concept comes from an economist (yep, an economist) named John Kay, who defines obliquity as the idea that goals are best achieved indirectly.  He gives some examples of this paradox: the happiest people are not those who spend their lives pursuing happiness; the most profitable corporations are not those that make maximizing profits their primary goal; the wealthiest people are not those whose first priority is accumulating wealth.

What sparked my interest - of course - was the premise that the happiest people are not those who spend their time trying to be happy. In fact, as author Adam Grant points out, actively pursuing happiness actually ends up making people unhappy.  This should give us all pause.  Think about how much time and energy we (Americans, westerners) devote to building a happy life.

Ask the average adult what he or she wants in life.  You'll probably get a variety of responses: a family, a big home in a safe neighborhood, a nice car, the time and money to travel the world, etc.  But if you ask him why he wants these things, what he hopes to gain from having them, it really boils down to this: he believes these things will make him happy.  In the end, most of us just want to be happy.

I imagine John Kay's advice would be this: if you want to be happy stop trying to be happy.  According to Kay, basing our decisions in life on what we think will make us happy doesn't work.  Why?

Kay explains his reasoning.  In the real world, things don't happen in a straight line.  One course of action generates a number of responses from different groups of people as well as from the environment; we simply cannot predict all of the possible responses in advance.  If we want to be successful, we may need to adapt our strategies based on feedback from others.  Issues emerge that might not have been immediately apparent in the beginning.  Factors that did not initially seem relevant can later become a central concern.  As circumstances change, our goals may need to change as well.  It is therefore preferable to start out with a vague and imprecise objectives, as these are more flexible and adapt more easily to changing conditions.

Effective problem solving - and effective living, for that matter - involves trial and error.  We often do not know whether a particular course of action will be effective until we try it.  If we are rigidly committed to that course of action we will be reluctant to abandon it, even when it proves ineffective.  Sometimes we have to be willing to abandon our objectives and change direction.

Kay stresses the importance of knowing what you don't know.  We get into trouble when we assume we know how the world works or when we convince ourselves that we have more control over our environments that we actually possess.  Successful people are ultimately those who recognize the limitations of their knowledge.  In terms of happiness, this means acknowledging that we might not know what makes us happy.  The world is full of people who chose a particular path because they thought it would make them happy, only to discover later that they are not happy at all.

In sum, if you want to be happy stop trying to be happy.  Focus on other objectives.  For me, I try to focus on goals like spending as much time with the people I love as possible.  Yours goal might be different.  I'd love to hear from you - what objectives do your pursue?

1 comment:

  1. Oftentimes the happiness we seek is based on something we have never seen in ourself, almost putting in so far from reach that we never see it. My goal is to see humanity in strangers that the same people that we are most likely to find faults in ….only because of the over the top standards we put on our self.


My Favorites