Finding happiness through reduction

Let me preface this by saying that happiness, like many words, is kinda bullshit.

So this post is actually about finding passion(s), a general sense of contentment, or perhaps a mild but stable sense of enjoyment in life. Things that I think are real and attainable – rather than some inflated notion of ‘happiness’ that tries to promise us an unbounded state of ecstasy.

Happiness is a myth . . . It was invented to make us buy things.

– Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

Something I once heard that stuck with me is that happiness is the difference between expectations and reality… So maybe it’s having an unrealistic expectation for ‘happiness’ that sets us up for failure in the first place.


It feels like everyone is going through this right now

This subject has been on my mind lately because it feels like I’m surrounded by a LOT of friends who are enduring some version of a quarter-life-crisis. It’s like we’re all out here together trying to figure out the path forward – myself included. 

Although I’m not exactly sure why this seems to be the case right now there are plenty of possible theories. It might just be the scene in which I’m spending my time lately, around art, music, creatives, and entrepreneurs. Young and ambitious people who are trying to find their passions and make the most out of life, while tossing away many of the ‘old’ conventions in the process.

Or maybe it’s currently a widespread phenomenon, prompted by current events around the world and the state of our government. It definitely feels like these are restless times ripe for change, leaving many of us adrift and trying to find our way in a rapidly changing world. 

Or perhaps it’s just me – and I keep managing to prompt or inspire this type of conversation lately since it has been at the front of my mind; making this whole thing nothing but a case of confirmation bias.

Either way…

Why happiness through addition doesn’t work

My whole point in writing this, and what I think keeps making this crisis worse, is that the typical advice we get for ‘finding happiness’ is absolutely terrible.

  • Find your passion!
  • Do what makes you happy!
  • Follow your dreams!
  • etc

If you’ve ever set goals for yourself (or someone else) you might realize that these are, in fact, terrible. They don’t follow a single guideline for creating good goals – they aren’t specific, they aren’t measurable, etc.

Seriously, just try putting one of them on your to-do list for a good laugh:

  • Walk the dog
  • Do the laundry
  • Pay the electric bill
  • Dinner with Eric

Ok, so it’s pretty obvious we don’t stand much of a chance with this approach. And it gets worse, because even if you could break these crazy pieces of advice down into smaller more actionable goals to help make your life better… There is still one BIG problem.

People really aren’t good at knowing what makes them happy. 


I know this sounds a bit ridiculous, but if you truthfully look at the ways most people spend their time and money, while presumably trying to make themselves happier, you’ll see that we really aren’t good at it.

I’m not going to dig up a bunch of references on this, but here a few things that people do all the time, while spending lots of time (and/or) money in the process, that don’t seem to have a very strong correlation to increased ‘happiness’ – and I’m sure you can think of many more examples:

  • Buying increasingly larger and more expensive homes (often further from neighbors or community, compounding the problem and increasing commute times)
  • Buying newer, more expensive vehicles (often with ongoing payments)
  • Increasing consumption of food, alcohol, etc
  • Excessive consumerism 
  •  Generally spending money and time in an attempt to remove inconveniences and make life more ‘comfortable’

These things have a very poor correlation to actually increasing ‘happiness’ despite the tremendous time, money, and energy that most of us continue to dump into them. In fact – most of them just make us more broke, lonely, out of shape, and miserable over time.

But don’t worry, there’s an upside ☀️

Happiness through reduction 

Ok, so maybe it’s true. We’re totally shit at knowing what makes us happy and spending our time and money to fix the problem.

I’m not sure why this is,  and although it probably has something to do with biology, evolution, post-agricultural society, and the overwhelming demands of the modern ego…

We don’t really need to know.

Because we can just take advantage of the flip side instead. 

People are pretty good at knowing what makes them unhappy

Bingo. Happiness through reduction. 

When used properly I think this is a powerful tool for creating a better life. Because perhaps the best way to find happiness is to quit looking for it all together.

What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

So Instead of trying to find your passion, or discover what makes you happy, just work to remove the things that cause unhappiness in your life instead

In practice this approach is WAY easier and more actionable than the abstract advice we keep hearing about ‘finding’ happiness and purpose. Rather, sit down and take a few hours to think about the things in your life that are actively conspiring to make you unhappy – and come up with a plan to eliminate as many of them as possible.

  • Get rid of the lawn you hate mowing
  • Move closer to work and axe that commute
  • Leave that toxic relationship
  • Find a new job and quit the one that’s making you miserable
  • Etc

Hopefully you’ll find that these new goals fit into your to-do list much better, which makes it way easier to actually take care of them and make some progress.

And it gets even better, since each of the things you eliminate will not only destroy a source of unhappiness – but it will also create space for something new to enter your life. And that’s a tremendous win, because some of the things that come along might even become things that make you happy. And you didn’t even have to worry about figuring out what they were going to be ahead of time – which is great – since we’re not good at that anyway. ?

Perhaps a life full of happiness is simply one in which we’ve removed most of the things that actively make us unhappy. Because once the unhappiness is gone… 

I give you one guess as to what’s left.

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