The Pursuit of Happiness is making us miserable

I like many, have pursued self-improvement to better my life, become more successful and be happier.

My quest for personal development lead me to read, listen and watch to so much advice. But a part of me became exasperated at how much it felt like work. I asked myself ‘When will it end? When can I give up with all this learning? I just want to sit back and be content for a while.’

Another issue was that I wasn’t trying hard enough, I was afraid of missing out. That grabbed me when I deleted some podcast episodes on self-help. I wondered to myself, ‘what if those episodes were important?’, ‘What if they had good ideas that I might need?!’ I felt somewhat afraid. As if my life would fail if I didn’t have the knowledge they contained. Where did that fear come from, and why? 

Self-help, self-improvement is a vague idea and when I first started on my quest I had the notion of improving my life, myself. But now it has me wondering if all that reading was necessary.

What does self-improvement mean? What are we trying to do here? Words like self-improvement and personal growth are often used, but are they the right words to use?

What’s more, there’s a whole self-help industry out there worth billions. How useful is their advice? Is self-improvement possible and what do we mean by that?

The pursuit of success made me no happier, and from what I read, it’s not making any of us happier either.

What follows here are a few points I picked that show self-help is not the great idea we think it is. This will be part of a series of posts on the self help genre as a way of addressing anxiety, and life issue.


‘The ability to let that which does not matter, truly slide’


The first one I will pick up on is how addictive self-help can be. In my quest for a better life, I wanted to get better at everything. But that’s an enormous undertaking. The feeling ‘I’m not enough’ is what kept me going back again and again.

Each post or episode we look at is a way of saying, ‘there’s more to learn, you’re still not good enough, you’ll never be enough, never know enough.’

Sometimes I want to be happy where I am, with who I am. All this reading and listening is not good for me. I never seem to be satisfied. Contentment is never allowed to exist and I find myself gorging on much self-help ‘food’.

Reading this stuff is an addiction with the industry as the dealers. We can’t learn it all, can’t catalogue and curate all the wisdom and good ideas. There’s not enough time. Our to-do lists multiply and get bigger because the more we learn want to achieve. The Inbox Zero Problem by example.

So here I was, like an addict. Wanting to feel better and convinced the answer lies in books. Every post is like a hit. I felt better knowing I wasn’t slacking, nor complacent. It shows I’m a good person because I care so much about getting better. But i felt so tired, spread to thin, trying to much.

The self-help industry exists because it plays on our fears and insecurities. We’re either told we have a problem. Or we don’t feel worthy, successful or happy enough. So we buy books, seminars, courses.

This darkside of self-help plays the perfection card. Telling us we all need to be and look perfect to be of any worth to anyone. Such perfection is insidious, wrong and very harmful.

It’s taking life itself and turning it into a competitive sport. Personal development, self-help is making us ill. Our desperation to be successful and happy sucks the joy and fun out of life. This kind of neediness makes the economy work and self-help is no different. 


After pursing self improvement for over a decade I realised just how desperate I was to become a better, happier person. I was so prejudiced against myself and couldn’t accept who I was; my self-worth was very low at this time in my life, even to the point of self-loathing.

I learned just how desperate I was for happiness, and here I learned such desperation was the cause of my unhappiness. It’s here where I learned the happiness paradox and Buddhism’s lesson.

‘By making happiness, success the objects of our desire, they become the source of our suffering.’

Think of a carrot plush toy in the corner of the room, ‘over there’. It represents happiness, success, meaning, and Enlightenment in the Buddhist sense.

All that we want is over there in the corner. But we have a problem now because if happiness, success and the rest are over there in the corner, then it’s not here where I am now. So with this goal setting, I’ve made myself unhappy by definition. Because if I were happy, I would be over there with the carrots.

The chasing after, the clinging neediness is why we suffer. The endless stream of dissatisfaction as we desperately keep working to find that pot of god at the end of the rainbow.

None of this means we shouldn’t make goals and work towards them, but we must let go of the belief that such achievements will make us happy. The truth is Self-help can’t fix you because you, your life, doesn’t need to be fixed.

Personal development books can be of enormous benefit and there is some genuinely good advice out there. But at some point, we will have to deal with the fears and insecurities that keep us coming back for more. Those same fears that the self help book can speak off ironically.

Goals setting is best seen not as a destination to arrive at but as a compass heading to orientate yourself.

‘A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.’

Bruce Lee

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that I’m okay as I am, I learned how to accept myself despite my flaws.

That’s why I cut down on such reading. I no longer need it so much. I let go of the need to know it all and focused on creating more. My journey from consumption to production as I like to call it). I learned to live in the mystery and imperfection that life is about.

Self-help plays on our fears and insecurities, but true self-development is coming to terms with those insecurities and fears.

What I learned is there comes the point where your suffering looms larger in your mind than the answers you seek. Now suffering is the issue, and a flash of insight told me that pursuing the solution is the cause of my suffering. That was my way into Buddhism.

To focus on being more contented than to desperately consume content in a futile attempt to have all the answers. To cross the last blog post of the list, to catalogue the final piece of wisdom. It’s never going to happen.

This is one of the best messages I did get from self-help. But like all good advice, it’s buried, hidden. Just as our neuroses go unnoticed, and needs to be brought out into the open.

We need to consume this stuff more carefully. Perhaps a personal development fast for a short time. Set a moratorium on self-help blogs, podcasts and videos. Instead, focus on other aspects of your life, creativity, relationships, health. The practice not the theory.

Happiness, purpose, meaning, purity, a fit body, a life full of adventure, these are some of the dreams sold by the self help industry. But like all great ideas it can become a addictive, and a cause of suffering.

Studying ever more and more instead of taking action and making a life we want to live. The more we read the more we realise we falling behind, so self help becomes subject to fads and fashions, as we flip between different projects.

Self-help becomes work as we do battle with the person we see in the mirror. Unsatisfied, unhappy and always working. There’s no joy in it.

Life is supposed to be fun. We have to stop the war and learn to make peace with ourselves. To really get down what we want from it and ignore the rest.

Self-help can have the attitude of life as a problem to be fixed, not an adventure to be lived. To do that we need to use it with more care, and beware of it’s negative side. See it a travel guidebook of possibilities, not a Satnav route to be followed fanatically like some idiot.

The paradox of happiness and success  is that if we chase after it, we will suffer because we are gasping for it.

Happiness is not a goal to be achieved but a state to enjoy.

Happiness is not at the end of the path, it’s how you walk the path.

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