Exploring a Deep and Multifaceted Question

When conducting The Pursuit of Happiness seminar recently, an extremely sharp and thoughtful participant posed the following question to me: Are we overthinking happiness?

Now, it wasn’t specified explicitly, but I took the question to mean, “As a culture or society, are we overthinking happiness?”

At the time, I approached my response from a particular perspective and it felt compelling enough for that moment. However, it’s a deep and multifaceted question, and I wanted to explore some additional dimensions in this article here.

First off, the topic of Happiness was explored and discussed in a good amount of detail in the seminar, so I won’t rehash that material here. Instead, I’m going to focus on aspects of this question that may or may not be obvious to all.

As you’ll see, most of the analysis and exploration that follows is more universal in nature and not limited to the topic of Happiness.

With that said, here we go…

First Things First: Examine the Thinking

Before we evaluate the “overthinking” part of the question, we must examine the quality of the thinking. In other words, before questioning whether we’re going overboard with the amount of attention and thought we put to anything, it might be more productive to question and examine “how” we’re thinking about it in the first place.

Is the line of thought constructive or limiting? Is there awareness about the biases and assumptions behind the thinking? Has a sound and effective system or framework been employed for ensuring better conclusions?

If there’s a problem, “overthinking” is more likely to be a symptom with subpar or ineffective thinking being the cause.

The Obsession Consideration

Next, we must consider whether the use of the word “overthinking” hints or implies shades of “obsession.” 

You see, obsession of any kind leads to destructive outcomes in the long run. That’s true even if the obsession is for a seemingly good cause.

It might feel exhilarating—even fulfilling—while things go favorably. However, the longer the time span, the higher the likelihood of adversity or opposition manifesting, and that’s when things start going south. That’s because obsession is a hyper trait that is usually accompanied by impatience and lack of tolerance. Much of the extremism that exists in the world could be traced back to some kind of obsession.

Going back to the original question, as ironic—or unfair, based on your viewpoint—as it might seem, if one pursues happiness with a level of obsession or desperation (consciously or subconsciously), there’s bound to be misery and despair on the horizon.

An Unsolved Puzzle

Let’s say you’re given a fun puzzle to solve. It’s not one of those impossible ones and you know you can solve it, but the solution keeps eluding you. Even when you put the puzzle away in order to get to other things, you’re still thinking about the puzzle every now and then, aren’t you?

The situation is somewhat similar when you find yourself overthinking. At some level, you’re dealing with a nut that you haven’t figured out how to crack yet

In such instances, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s confusion or lack of understanding about the matter at hand. From there, conscious effort can be made so as to enable the transition from such a puzzled or perplexed state to one with clarity and definiteness.

Overthinking & Happiness

Finally, I would like to point out that the less we have to think, the happier we can be.

Emphasis on the word “have” in the above statement. What does this mean? We’re building upon the previous point, which is that overthinking is likely a symptom of confusion or lack of understanding.

Thinking, especially prolonged and unproductive, can be a very expensive activity. Here’s what I mean:

  • Demoralizing Effect of Unproductive Thought: With overthinking, we’re likely spinning our wheels without getting productive results. Stay unproductive long enough in the context of something you care about, and you’ll feel the demoralizing effects especially when there’s no clear path to a satisfactory resolution.
  • Opportunity Cost: If something has your attention, by definition, everything else is deprived of your attention. So if you are stuck in a seemingly endless thought loop, it’s going to eat into your productivity in other areas of your life, which in turn can affect your happiness.
  • No Downtime: There’s is simply great power in having the opportunity as well as ability to do nothing. You will see your happiness levels soar when you have these. But if you’re busy overthinking, such downtimes will be rare for you.

Each of the above factors individually, even more so collectively, affect our happiness negatively. So it’s imperative that we be mindful of this factor.

When you find yourself questioning whether you’re overthinking something, I hope the above points will help point you in the right direction.