The First Rule of Happiness: You Do Not Talk About Happiness

i promise i speak no evil by perfect day dream

If you saw the movie Fight Club, you may remember Brad Pitt as the colorful Tyler Durden, sharing the rules of Fight Club: “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.”  (The second rule, by the way, is “you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.”)  Similarly, the first rule of happiness seems to be:  You do not talk about happiness.

I say this because I am seeing a backlash against happiness not only in mainstream culture, but even among those in the positive psychology community.  Todd Kashdan, for example, a psychologist from George Mason University recently wrote about “The Problem with Happiness” on his Huffington Post blog.  The gist was that the relentless pressure to be happy in American culture is causing everyone to be miserable.  Just last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “Is Happiness Overrated?”  And this week, City Journal published a thought provoking article on “the Western cult of happiness” entitled, “Condemned to Joy.”

At a recent alumni event for graduates of UPenn’s positive psychology program, former students discussed the challenges of being taken seriously when trying to promote or sell happiness.  Many people who work in the field massage the language to make it sound more relevant, and so we see programs being sold to businesses promoting “wellbeing” and programs for the military offering (the much tougher sounding) “resilience.”  In “Well-Being for Public Policy ,” the authors (Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell) explain why they chose well-being rather than happiness as a focal point.  A focus on happiness, they say, “could be easily dismissed as a superficial and misguided attempt to distract people from more important concerns.”

It is only natural to see a backlash against happiness when you consider our growing obsession with it over recent years.  Programs, speakers and books on happiness have all risen to the tops of the charts with titles like “The Happiness Hypothesis,” “The How of Happiness,” “Happier,” or just plain “Happiness.”  (These are all on my bookshelf by the way, and I recommend them.)  But they do leave some people asking, “with all these books on happiness, why aren’t we happier?

Now we are seeing the pendulum swing the other way with titles such as “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” (known as “Smile or Die” in the U.K.,) “Against Happiness,” and “The Happiness Trap.”  I see this as a natural correction, and maybe we needed it.  But I’m not ready to turn my back on happiness just yet.

I have a few problems with the happiness bashing of late.  First of all, I think it is human nature to pursue happiness.  We are genetically predetermined to seek out things that make us feel good.  And while I agree we shouldn’t put additional pressure on ourselves for experiencing negative emotions (also a part of human nature,) we also shouldn’t beat ourselves up for wanting a little more happiness in our lives.

"Are You Happy" Happiness Infographic by Alex Koplin and David Meiklejohn

Secondly, in my mind, the problems with the pursuit of happiness have more to do with the “pursuit” than they do with the “happiness.”  Being too attached to an outcome in any pursuit can lead to disappointment and frustration.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t value happiness as an important goal for your life and the lives of those around you.  It’s certainly one of my goals and I’m not afraid to admit it.  That doesn’t mean I punish myself for experiencing negative emotions or feel like a failure when I’m not happy.  Mindfulness and happiness are not mutually exclusive—it is possible to mindfully pursue happiness.  (See my comment on “tilting toward the positive” in my article on “5 Big Problems with Positive Thinking [And Why You Should Do it Anyway.])

Finally, it is hard to debate happiness because it means different things to different people.  There is hedonic happiness which is about experiencing pleasure in the moment.  There is eudaimonic happiness which is about a sense of meaning and satisfaction with life.  See Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk that makes the distinction between having happiness in your life and happiness about your life.  The fact that happiness can be interpreted in different ways by different people, is the reason for the first rule of happiness: You do not talk about happiness.  It is hard to have clear communication if we haven’t all agreed on the definitions of the words we are using.  See these articles by Kashdan, Biswas-Diener, & King here and here on the problems with having different categories of happiness.

When I use the word happiness, and I do still use it, I think of it in an overarching way.  How happy you are about your life has something to do with how much happiness is in your life and vice versa.  While some define happiness as “preferences realized.”  I think of it in a more four dimensional sense that takes the element of time into account.  I think of it as “preferences realized and validated” which is to say, I enjoy what I’m doing now and the test of time will show that it also contributed to a meaningful life.

I don’t shy away from using the happiness word, even in business.   I’m not convinced that my happiness is different from anyone else’s and I don’t believe that the people in business want happiness any less than anyone else. If happiness is good enough for Coca Cola and Zappos, (which both seem to be doing O.K.,) I expect it’s good enough for other businesses.  (As Chip Conley says, the most neglected fact in business is that we are all human.)

Not only do I not shy away from the word happiness, I also don’t shy away from the “pursuit of happiness.”  In fact, in my definition of happiness, telling people they should not pursue happiness is an impossible paradox, because my definition of happiness is, “that which is pursued.”  If someone tells me they prefer to be miserable, I respond back, “if that’s what makes you happy.”  In this sense, we are all striving for happiness and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But that’s just my version of it.  What does happiness mean to you?

References and recommended reading:

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B. and King, L. A. (2009). Two traditions of happiness research, not two distinct types of happiness.  The Journal of Positive Psychology,4:3,208-211.  URL:

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap. Trumpeter.

Kashdan, T. B., Biswas-Diener, R. and King, L. A. (2008). Reconsidering happiness: the costs of distinguishing between hedonics and eudaimonia. The Journal of Positive Psychology,3:4,219-233.  URL:

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19 Responses to The First Rule of Happiness: You Do Not Talk About Happiness

  1. w from oz March 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm #


    Can you check out the link to condemned to joy?

    You also might find the following article interesting and a little confronting for PP–ktl031111.php

  2. Jeremy McCarthy March 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks Oz! Good catch on that link–it is corrected now, thanks to you!.

    I saw that study and agree it is interesting. I have a slightly different perspective as I don’t find anything in here to be confrontational to PP, it is just another research study to consider alongside other studies that have been done. It should be noted that this study is done on a slightly different demographic than other studies that have been done. The fact that the findings are somewhat different primarily speaks to the need for more diversity in research subjects, a point I think I have heard you bring up in the past as well.

  3. oz March 23, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    Yep a sample more reflective of the general population

  4. oz March 23, 2011 at 5:38 am #

    By the way your flowchart should have one more decision – “do you care if you are happy or not” and if the response is “no” then “you’re a winner” and if you answer “yes” the “get over it”

  5. Jeremy McCarthy March 23, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Hi Oz,

    I like your modification to the flowchart although I am still of the belief that moving towards happiness is a good thing and what mother nature intended by making positive emotions feel good.

  6. Lisa Sansom March 24, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    I’ve been pondering this post (which is excellent, by the way!) for some time now and I’m still uncomfortable with the whole “happiness” label. Here’s some of my thoughts, in no particular order.

    When we say “happiness”, most people (it seems) flash to the hedonic positive emotion implication. We know, as positive psychology practitioners, that PP is about much more than hedonic positive emotions. They are good, but definitely not everything. They are also fleeting and evasive. It’s hard to imagine someone having a high subjective well-being based solely on hedonic positive emotions.

    Yet “happiness” is also an excellent catch-phrase. It reminds me of Marty saying how he dislikes that every article about positive psychology is accompanied by that yellow smiley face. It was a great mass media concept to get the idea “out there” but now we are beyond that and the research and general public are catching up. But is the notion still behind?

    I wish that, in English, we had a different word from “happiness” that was more the eudaimonic sense. “Meaning” seems weighty. “Calling” has religious overtones. And no one understands “eudaimonia”. 🙂

    So I do shy away from the H-word because it seems too superficial for the good work that can be done in positive psychology. Sort of like how, when you ask someone how they are doing, they say “fine”. It’s a sort of non-word now.

    I agree it’s important, but I think it’s a grossly misunderstood term, and so personally, I’m expanding my vocabulary so I have other options.

  7. JoAnna Brandi March 24, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    The language is often the problem because happiness is so subjective. I use the word – happily – and use others as well. The word happiness is even in my URL so I like it but do understand how it makes some bristle. It’s been in the news a lot lately.

    My personal intention is to feel a wider range of positive emotions more often. I encourage people to use what ever words work for them. In my workshops I often do an exercise were we delve deep to uncover people’s true feelings about happiness.

    There are lots of negative impressions of happiness out there so a “back lash” to the notion that are lives would be better if we had more positive emotions is understandable.

    Deeply embedded beliefs could play a part in holding us apart from happiness.

    I am finding an openness in business to hearing more about it, and I am finding wonderful results with the people who have embraced the concept and increased the positive capacity where they work and at home.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy March 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Hi Lisa and JoAnna, thanks for your comments. I know in the realm of positive psychology we debate the meaning and use of the word happiness ad infinitum. But I can’t help but wonder if this really is a big issue in the “real” world. I know there will always be a percentage of people who find the idea of happiness distasteful, but I think it is probably a small percentage and perhaps not worthy of all the debate.

    BTW, interesting article published this week by Shawn Achor:

  9. Lisa Sansom March 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    Probably small in the “real” world (love the term) BUT if you use the word “happiness” and your audience is not receptive / open / ready for it / believes it’s too facile, whatever, then you may lose them really early on before you get to the good stuff. I think you need to be able to read the room and speak to your audience at their level, with their language. If you launch into the H-word too quickly, woe to you! 😉

  10. Jeremy McCarthy March 25, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    I think that’s true, Lisa, and I hear the same thing from many people in the PP community, but in my experience most audiences are open to the idea of happiness and so we probably are tiptoeing around it more than necessary.

  11. Eric Mieles March 28, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    I’ve REALIZED happiness for me lies mainly in the knowledge that everyday i am surrounding myself with the things that seem to make me feel alive. I try to collect happy moments and I really think very hardly about what was it about that particular moment that made me ‘Happy”.

    The workout in the morning that seems to set up my day for production. The reading of industry related material that seems to make me confident in my subject matter, the long walks with my dog, the movies I go to see, the writing that I love to do,

    If I can collect the fill my days with the things that bring joy and happiness in my life that I believe my path is one the I cna one day be proud of and know deep down that I was in tune to my own personal heaven on earth.

    The problem I see is that some may believe their idealistic vision of happiness is so far away that they just confom and give up to a life of mediocrity and others will have endlessly pursued happiness to the point of never seeing all that’s around them to enjoy the path.

    If we would take some time to REALIZE what we feel, how things make us act, what are responses were from certain moments we could begin collecting the moments that seem to make us happy!

  12. Dan Bowling March 29, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    I agree with Jeremy. Use the word “Happy.” That is what I tell current MAPP students when they ask about using positive psychology in business (knowing it is not a universally-held opinion among MAPP graduates). It is easy to get discouraged by the nay-sayers (don’t know why Todd K seems to constantly bash the field – maybe he got rejected by Penn when he was younger) and sometimes it seems like they are everywhere, but I attribute that more to how the negative tends to drown out everything around it. “Happiness,” however it is defined, is a term meaningful in all societies, throughout all of history. If you are seeking to apply positive psychology, don’t avoid it. It cuts through a lot of clutter.

  13. Louisa March 30, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Great blog post. I really like how you explored both sides of the coin here. First of all, I have to agree with you on the fact that most of this push back on happiness comes mainly from our own academic community. Wanting to critically analyze our field and ensure we have a realistic perspective is important and I am glad to hear all sides. But is that the point of view of the general population? I would have to say no and here’s why:

    Most of the people I encounter in my talks (and I speak to thousands of people every year as well as hearing from my listeners on my radio show) are wanting to know strategies regarding how to be happier. It’s not because they are obsessed with being happy and are thinking about it all the time, thus making themselves miserable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is because life is hard – we are dealing with work overload, family issues, taking care of aging parents, constant barrage of emails, threats of terrorist attacks, worrying about whether we have too much belly fat or high cholesterol – everyone can write up their own list. Most people I talk to are barely keeping their head above water! They need strategies on how to get off the fast moving treadmill of life and really live.

    Now here is another perspective, and I will speak from personal experience. I focus on maintaining my well-being so that I do not slip into depression. Yes, for a number of years I struggled with depression going in and out of it for years on end. It is not a nice time and everyone suffers when I am depressed, especially my family. After practicing the tools in PP, I have never been depressed again. It is a feeling of strength and resilience that is so empowering. So for me, it’s not about a constant obsession with being happy. It’s about helping people navigate life in healthy and confident ways. It’s about building strength to go out and live the life you want to live. It’s about having the mental capacity to be productive and accomplish what I want to accomplish.

    My happiness feels more like a daily peaceful contentedness to me. So not sure the word I would put on it, but I’m not afraid to use the ‘h’ word.

    Thanks Jeremy.

  14. Jeremy McCarthy March 30, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Thanks Eric, good comments. I think you get at the real problem with happiness which is when people feel that they have failed somehow because they haven’t attained their ideal of a perfect happy life. As a new parent, I am amazed at the amounts of negative emotions that babies go through, crying when they are tired, lonely, scared, hungry, etc. It makes me realize that unhappiness is a part of life from day one, and yet so many people feel at fault for the negative emotions they experience. They think if they had made better decisions they would have a happier life.

    Where I differ from some of the critics of happiness (and I think you do too,) is that I believe you can move towards happiness and cherish happiness but still accept negative emotions as well.

  15. Jeremy McCarthy March 30, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Thanks Dan, you are right. People try to avoid the h-word because it can be hard to define but it’s kind of like the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

  16. Jeremy McCarthy March 30, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    Thanks Louisa for sharing your story and your perspective. I appreciate your ideas both from your professional expertise and your personal experience.

  17. Betsey August 2, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    I am forever inebtded to you for this information.


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