Happiness is not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have….

I saw this loathsome platitude on LinkedIn the other day. It’s one of those sententious, apparently simple directives that’s supposed to stop you in your tracks and change your life forever. In my case it merely triggers the gag reflex.

‘Gosh, I never thought of that,’ you’re supposed to exclaim (and perhaps fall to the floor like St Paul on the road to Damascus). ‘I can be happy now.’


Now, of course there’s an element of truth in it. Having things isn’t necessarily the route to happiness. Cars, trophy wives and husbands, lovers, yachts, money, houses, democracy, gold, education, antiques, holidays, refrigeration, paintings, fashion accessories, justice, clothes and other fripperies aren’t a sure-fire recipe for happiness, but, let’s be honest, some of them help.

And, to be fair, this nonsense is probably about ‘things’ in the sense of physical things rather than abstract things of unchallengeable value such as health, justice, democracy and education. And surely no one, not even the smug author of this facile rubbish, is suggesting that happiness is wanting the cancer you’ve got. Accepting, perhaps, though also fighting – but surely not wanting.

So,don’t lecture the homeless, the starving, the exiled, the sick, the uneducated, and suggest they’d be perfectly happy if they stopped wanting things.

In fact, there are hard(-ish) facts facts about happiness and material prosperity. The Economist reports that emerging countries and rich countries are converging in terms of happiness, but poor countries are still lagging far behind. Don’t tell me that the citizens of these poor countries just need to read and accept this demeaning platitude. It would certainly be cheaper and more convenient than involving the World Bank and Foreign Aid, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Many religions and philosophies suggest that ‘wanting’ is not the path to happiness, but their point is probably a more subtle one. They’re probably suggesting we shouldn’t even want what we have.

Even the Serenity Prayer accepts that we should change what we can (and how can you do that without wanting?):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.

And, where would the world’s economy be if we were simply happy with what we have?

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

I was thinking of this loathsome cliché when I was bicycling in Hungary a week or two ago. (Apparently it’s one of the sayings of Confucius.) Each day in the saddle began with a first and easy revolution of the pedals, and then another 40,000 or so, every one a little more difficult than the last. I can’t say that this glib little saying, which kept coming to mind in the most irritating way, offered a moment’s consolation, knowing that I had another 85 km to go. I can assure you that it’s the last ten thousand that make a journey difficult, not the first.

A single step

Yes, I do understand what this silly truism is trying to say, but I just don’t find it inspiring.

  • If it’s saying that a journey is easy because it’s just a lot of little steps, then that’s obviously untrue. Difficulty has to do with the total number.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without a commitment to completing it (because it’s pretty easy to give up after the first step or two) then that’s not encouraging either, and not always true.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without knowing where you’re going, then that’s patent nonsense. A long journey needs a good plan and the determination to complete it.
  • If it’s saying that you should begin a journey without thinking of your final destination, then that’s foolish.

If setting out to do something valuable depends on your assenting to this cosy platitude, then I would question your motives.

Imagine Winston Churchill in May 1940 wondering whether to fight on and resist the Nazi domination of Europe.

‘I’m in two minds,’ he might have said, swigging a tumbler of brandy. ‘Can we really take on the German juggernaut or shall we make a coward’s peace?’

And someone lowly but presumptuous raises a timid hand and says, ‘Mr Churchill, just remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

‘What a splendid thought. Never occurred to me. We will fight them on the beaches…..’ And so on. And the wheels of history turned the way they did.

Not likely!

The fact is that a journey of a thousand miles usually ends with exhaustion and not always where you wanted to be, even if it’s a worthwhile trip. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Here’s some similar-sounding silliness that’s equally banal:

  • A large number begins with a single digit
  • The longest novel begins with a single word
  • The most potent drink begins with a single sip
  • The biggest explosion begins with a tiny spark
  • Death begins with your very first breath
  • Idiocy begins with a single small cliché
  • Obesity starts with a single grain of rice
  • A journey by train begins with the purchase of a ticket

…and so on.


Reach for the sick bowl.