How to Be Happy By Understanding Instrumental Values

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

You could make a strong argument that the universe is poorly designed.

Don’t get me wrong, I doubt I could do a better job. But, due to what appears to be a mistake in the grand universal design, nothing is purely, unequivocally good. There’s always a trade-off.

Sometimes the trade-off is clear. For example, winning the lottery brings public exposure and new pressures on our relationships. (Which, honestly, I would be willing to accept.)

Other times the trade-off is simply that we can’t have everything: eating the chocolate cake means no longer having the chocolate cake to look forward to.

These trade-offs happen in all areas of our lives, but are most obvious in our careers. Whatever we choose, we’re choosing not to do everything else.

It would help to have a guiding principle for choosing between trade-offs. A fancy way to put this is picking what we’re optimising for in our lives.

Do we want to optimise for efficiency – getting the most done in the least time? Or are we more interested in maximising our financial rewards? Or perhaps we want whatever brings most variety?

There aren’t any bad choices (well, unless we decide to optimise for personal pain, or something equally unwise). And the best optimisation for each of us will change depending on what’s happening. Maybe ten years ago we wanted maximum financial security, but now we want more excitement… or vice versa.

Ask yourself: what are you currently optimising for? What breaks the tie when you’re deciding between options? And is that still your highest priority right now?

For me, I’m currently experimenting with optimizing for joy.

Cut out the Middle & Aim for Joy

I’m doing this because, in a sense, joy is the end result I really want out of all the other possibilities.

Why do I want to be efficient, financially rewarded, or to have a varied schedule? When I look deeper, I see that actually I don’t want those things, at least, not for themselves. I want them because they bring me joy.

So why not cut out the middle step and go straight for the end result? This way I avoid the common trap of accidentally developing an incredibly efficient life that brings me no joy whatsoever.

This sort of trap happens when we get confused between terminal values and instrumental values, i.e. “things you actually want for themselves” versus “things that are merely a means to an end.”

Why Have Instrumental Values at All?

Sometimes we get so caught up in intermediate steps that we forget that they aren’t our real goals at all. Is money really an end goal, or do I want it for something else? If so, why do I want that something else? Is it all, ultimately, happiness?

If joy is the thing I really want, why is it so easy to get wrapped up in the intermediate steps? One reason can be that joy is tougher to measure than, say, efficiency or financial success.

When our terminal values are hard to measure, it’s easier to use a proxy. Being rich and productive makes us happy (or so we think!), so we naturally start measuring “productive time” and “money in the bank” instead of happiness. And over time, we might forget that the end result was supposed to be happiness, not these intermediate measures we started using to bring us towards it.

Sources of Joy

Assuming you share my terminal value of joy, how can we start to optimize for it? Let’s think about where we might look for joy:

  • Look backwards: what was the most recent thing that brought you joy, and what’s the earliest experience of joy you can remember?

Past experiences are the best predictors of what might bring us joy in future. It’s odd how easily we forget what makes us happy. Recently I spent an hour playing music, and found myself thinking “I love doing this; why don’t I do it more often?”

Are there any activities you miss doing? How could you bring them back into your life, even in a small way?

  • How about productivity? Do you find joy only in completing a project (or mastering a skill), or do you enjoy the journey?

For some – myself included – the satisfaction pretty much only arrives at the end of a project. This is great for motivation to actually finish what I start, but it comes with a downside that I miss out on a lot of potential enjoyment. I’m working on learning to enjoy the journey more by being less of a perfectionist and taking time out to look back on what I’ve achieved along the way.

On the other hand, some people enjoy the journey almost too much, as a result, struggle to finish. Perhaps if this is you, you might shift some satisfaction away from the journey and into the moment of completion.

  • Look at the different times you’ve felt joy. Can you see any common elements?

Perhaps you can see that you never enjoy yourself without other people present. Or perhaps you mostly find joy in times of solitude.

There are many dimensions where we all differ in how we find joy. Off the top of my head:

  • Learning something new versus operating out of existing skills
  • In a busy place versus in a quiet sanctuary
  • Challenged versus comfortable

Of course, sometimes we want to be challenged; sometimes we want to be comfortable. Often we want a bit of both.

Taking a moment to review our lives might reveal that we’ve been doing too much of one lately, and that we could use a bit of the other.

Finding the Right Balance

I can’t promise that seeking joy is the answer to all life’s problems.

No one value can be our only consideration; sometimes we might have to take work that doesn’t make us happy in order to pay the bills. But no matter our circumstances, I’m sure there are actions we can take—big or small—that will bring us a little more joy.


Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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