Happiness is a result of effort, but effort that’s directed towards meaningful goals, not necessarily the goal of being happy.
Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self lives only in the present, and will be happy when you indulge in pleasures like a cold beer on a hot day. This type of happiness is fleeting.
Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a product of the remembering self looking back on what’s passed. It’s something that occurs when you achieve goals and make something of your life, even though the lived experience was difficult or effortful.
“…happiness and satisfaction are distinct. Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire.”—Daniel Kahneman
These two selves are often in conflict. One wants us to focus on enjoying the moment, the other wants us to exert self-control and focus on the long-term. Completely ignoring either isn’t a good solution, rather, we need balance. But there are times when the experiencing self and the remembering self can be aligned.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that people’s greatest moments come when they’re pushing themselves to their limits. He studied the notion of flow—when you become so entranced by some task that you lose track of time and your sense of self. You’re purely focused on achieving something.
“Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment.”
However you choose to define happiness, or to draw the distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self, it is through the exertion of effort that we achieve the best of both worlds.
It might be nice indulging in certain pleasures—and I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t, every so often—but they are not what leads to us feeling satisfied with our life.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed we had to experience the downs to appreciate the ups. It’s all relative—how will you know how good you have it if you can’t compare it to how bad it can be?
Likewise, Bertrand Russel laments the notion of ‘curing’ all our struggles, because it’s likely to ruin any attempt at happiness:
“The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy.”
We need to find a task that we feel passionate about, that is meaningful and offers an opportunity for growth. Then we need to invest all our effort into it. At times this will feel rough, difficult, and as a result we won’t be happy. But there will be brief surges of Flow, which we’ll enjoy. And what we get at the end, when all is said and done, is a lasting form of happiness that we feel good looking back on.