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Seeking what not to seek: How to align achievement and happiness

Updated: 2 days ago

Seeking not to seek:  How to align achievement and happiness

This article explores one of our most important life trade-offs. We appreciate achieving work-life balance is important - but how do you do that? What does work-life balance mean and why is it different for different people or even change over time for the same person? To answer these questions, this article explores our nature as seekers and the trade-offs associated with seeking long-term happiness. Armed with this seeking knowledge, we explore what not to seek as a means to uncover healthy seeking. A seeking framework is provided for achieving and adapting our work-life balance. The article concludes with resources to aid in your seeking.

About the author: Jeff Hulett is a behavioral economist and a decision scientist. He is an executive with the Definitive Companies. Jeff teaches personal finance and the decision sciences at James Madison University. Jeff is an author and his latest book is Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions. His experience includes senior leadership roles in banking and bank risk consulting. Jeff holds advanced degrees in finance, mathematics, and economics. Jeff and his family live in the Washington D.C. area

Table of Contents

  1. We are insatiable creatures

  2. How much income do we need to be happy?

  3. Seeking by knowing what NOT to seek

  4. Seeking and not seeking the road to happiness

  5. Concluding with the seeking road

  6. Notes

Understanding how much we should seek and what to seek starts with answering two fundamental questions:

  1. Why do we seek? and

  2. How much money is necessary to achieve happiness?

Section 1 explores why we seek. Section 2 addresses the money.

1. We are insatiable creatures

Doing what the article title suggests - “Seeking what not to seek” - is very challenging. History, science, and religion teach a consistent message - people are hardwired for insatiable seeking[i-a] We naturally want more because our genome is wired to seek more.  Our evolutionary biology is geared toward resolving scarcity.  In the old days, seeking was more likely triggered for resolving hunger and protecting our families.  Your existence today is because your entire line of ancestors survived to have children. Their survival was the result of seeking. If just one of your direct descendent ancestors had not been good at seeking and resolving scarcity - the evolutionary chain would be broken. The seeking of ALL your ancestors and the seeking-related fine-tuning of your genome is why you exist!

Our powerful, evolution-based seeking presents in new and different ways due to today's modern, information-abundant world. However, today's seeking still relates to resolving scarcity.  Modern examples include a desire for more social media engagement or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ leading to more wealth or status.  Modern laws and medicine have all but eliminated the existential threats responsible for fine-tuning our genome. However, because of the slow and lagging evolutionary process, our brains are still wired as if we could be chased by a lion and die tomorrow. Our seeking-enabled genome generally presents as comparative emotion. “Fear Of Missing Out” or “FOMO” is a typical feeling spurring our seeking. For example, if the "Joneses" appear to have more than us, our genome-generated response is to compare ourselves to and encourage us to match or exceed their accumulation level. Of course, appearances could be false, the Joneses could be like a pufferfish expanding their size to look bigger than they are. But our genome cannot tell the difference. So in the modern age, our natural, genome-directed seeking can be a challenge.

Our culture reinforces our seeking-enabled genome. America - like many developed and democratic countries - encourages an "achievement-seeking" culture. Our achievement-seeking nature is filtered through America's competitive governance culture - as reinforced by the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, plus our laws, institutions, and social standards. The American constitution's brilliance is because it aligns with our seeking nature as a means to provide for society. As stated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, our governance and culture are guided to "...promote the general Welfare." Our society's competitive framework aims to achieve optimal resource allocation results across the population. [i-b] Many are taught at a young age about the virtues of achievement-seeking.

The cultural alignment with our achievement-seeking nature is part of our environment. However, our culture often does not separate healthy vs. unhealthy achievement-seeking. The "pursuit of happiness," as found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, is left up to the individual to define. The article's thesis is that seeking is healthy in many cases - but not in all cases. In some cases - seeking works against us. This article helps differentiate between good and not-so-good seeking.

Time-tested world religions are broadly aligned on the potential negative impacts of seeking. [i-c] In religious texts, seeking tendencies are expressed by words like "Selfish," "Desire," "Lust," and "Greed." Time-tested religious alignment on the impacts of seeking include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and others. For example:

"You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."

- Christianity, James 4.1-3

This article introduces a framework for how not to seek, aligned with teachings from science, our governance culture, and religion.

2. How much income do we need to be happy?

Seeking is based on an important evolutionary catalyst. Without seeking, we could end up poor or dead.  We worry about providing for our family or ourselves.  Religions warn us against the wrong kind of seeking. In this section, income is considered as the outcome of seeking. Then, the operative question connecting seeking, happiness, and income is, "How much income do we need to be happy?" The short answer is - "Not as much as you probably thought."

Psychology and behavioral economics research by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and others suggest we should temper seeking not related to happiness once a basic level of income is achieved.  Once we achieve some minimal level of wealth and prosperity, our happiness does not increase – or increases very marginally - as income increases. Kahneman summarizes his happiness research with a pithy observation:

"Money does not buy you happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery."

So, if the goal is to maximize our happiness, then seeking income - for the sake of income - beyond a minimum threshold is contrary to this goal. [i-d]

The happiness income threshold

When do you have enough income?

Kahneman happiness threshold

The schema is from Ma and Zhang, 2014.  The schema is synthesized based on several publications (Kahneman and Deaton 2010; Easterlin and Angelescu 2009; and Inglehart et al. 2008).

Notice the research suggests an absolute level of income as a happiness threshold. This is important because, as discussed in the last section, our genome is wired for comparison to others in our social group. Thus, our instinctive emotional response generally does not know how to interpret absolutes, it only knows how to compare. Thus, even though we only need approximately $60,000 in income to reach happiness, as long as our social set has more, our genome encourages us to accumulate more.

Note: $60,000 is a threshold estimate based on Dr. Kahneman's empirical analysis. This is an average. Every market and situation is different. The takeaway is that there is some absolute threshold after which most people's happiness will diminish greatly. Also, because we are prone to comparative seeking, the threshold level is probably lower than most people expect.

To summarize - reaching a minimal income threshold is necessary to have a happy life.  Also, upon passing that threshold, the marginal happiness return to income diminishes greatly.  Contrary to our genomic-based intuition, this research finding suggests people are better served by not seeking to grow income past a certain point.  As such, we are better off diverting our time to other happiness-deriving pursuits once we achieve some basic level of income.  The minimum income threshold is considered necessarily self-serving to build a platform to help others. It is challenging to help others if your basic needs are not met.

Next, a framework is discussed for what NOT to seek. The article concludes by building on what not to seek as being 'out-of-bounds.' Then, the many important 'in-bounds' seeking decisions are introduced. The reader is provided resources for exploring the 'in-bounds' seeking decisions. Telling the difference between good and not-so-good seeking often comes down to our seeking motivation.  Seeking to help others is certainly a good thing – on the other hand - the NOT framework describes how our seeking challenge initiates with our necessary but difficult-to-restrain self-focused motivations.

As a great paradox, through some people's efforts to help others, they are paid sums well above what is necessary for their minimum income threshold. Think of money as a voting mechanism. If you create some product or service providing great value, those receiving value will vote with their feet by paying for that which provides them value. Thus, not seeking for the sake of income may lead to what we are not seeking - more income.

3. Seeking by knowing what NOT to seek

It is one thing to suggest we should divert our time to other happiness-deriving pursuits – and another thing entirely to do it.  We may believe making money makes us happy.  Or, we may believe the sense of achievement we receive from work - like winning the next deal or achieving budget results - is part of our happiness. But could the time it takes to make money or related work achievements be deployed in other activities better able to help other people and achieve more happiness?  According to the research, the answer for many people is "Yes." However, the instinctual desire to seek often obscures the motivation associated with different alternatives available to seek. [i-e] While we are hardwired to seek more resources, our genome does not differentiate which resources bring us more happiness. For our genome, happiness is survival to pass on our DNA. Our genome does not care so much about how our genes get passed on, as long as they do. [i-f] Thus, how and what we seek is a choice. That choice may bring us more or less happiness.

Since it is difficult to determine what makes us happy, next is a simple framework for the five categories NOT to seek.  This framework is generally grounded in behavioral economics, as well as, stoic and world religious teachings. This framework assumes your minimum wealth threshold is achievable. This framework channels our hardwired, natural genetic-seeking instincts 'via negativa.'  Achieving a goal is often more effective by learning what NOT to do - rather than by directly pursuing a target outcome. [ii-a] You still have plenty of space to determine what makes you happy - but the five NOT categories show you what to avoid while you fine-tune your happiness goals.

Deciding what makes you happy is very difficult. Instead - strive to avoid what leads to unhappiness. Then, over time, what remains will lead to your happiness.

framework for seeking not to seek


Next is a description of each NOT to seek category:

1. Not seeking luxury.  You have worked hard your whole life – why shouldn’t you seek some luxury?  You deserve it!  The challenge here is connecting luxury to hard work.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Work is its own reward.”  If so, why then do people chase luxury?  The answer relates to the hard work making luxury possible.  Luxury seeking substitutes one form of seeking (work) for another form of seeking (luxury).  The money we receive for work is related to some value created for society. In comparison, luxury is how we choose to consume today. Assuming fixed budget constraints, luxury-seeking is more likely to crowd out other forms of resource utilization - including those resources benefiting others. Luxury consumption is a challenge because it is an inferior seeking substitute for work value creation. Our contentment with the things we have is synonymous with happiness.  Plus, the more we can be content with what we have, the more capacity (time and money) is available to create value for others and save for our future.  It is a virtuous cycle starting by diverting the seeking nature enabling you to achieve at work in the first place. Not seeking luxury is another form of expectations management. The more we have, the more we want and happiness is impacted negatively if we cannot achieve more. [ii-b] So being selective about your source of more - such as not chasing luxury - is helpful for achieving happiness.

2. Not seeking vanity.  For some, their sense of value comes from being important.  Important to our family, important to our workplace, and/or important to our friends.  Sure, you are important. However, importance is mostly a perception found in the importance-seeker's mind.  [ii-c]  We tend to overplay our own importance compared to the perception of others.  Most people appreciate others when they help them. However, the value of that help is much shorter lived in the minds of those helped compared to the minds of the helpers.  With few exceptions – like parenthood - most of us are dispensable and would find seeking indispensability without much merit.  We should seek to help others and to be happy in the presence of others.  But this helpfulness and happiness should NOT be motivated by importance-seeking. A common example of not seeking vanity and decision challenges concerns decision readiness. Decisions concerning our future flourishing are super challenging. These are decisions like those for college or marriage. These self-referential decisions involve predicting how we will respond in the mostly unknown future world. Determining readiness for making that flourish-impacting decision is the big challenge. Once you are ready, choosing which alternative is a more straightforward decision. When determining whether we are ready, it is our vanity that may lead us astray. Listening to your heart and those you respect - like parents or a minister - helps manage your vanity for properly determining your readiness. [ii-d]

A college example: Let's say you are in high school and deciding to go to college. How do you decide if you are ready? All your "smart" friends are going to a "great college." The "losers" are going to community college. But that is your vanity talking! Research shows college peer pressure is significant and may lead to poor decisions. Questions of study skills and paying the proper amount for the college value received are essential. Community college is a great avenue for achieving that college value. [ii-e]

3. Not seeking ignorance.  Ignorance comes from either a failure to update our beliefs with new information or a failure to attend to new information.   Let's start with belief updating. This is being able to learn new information and adapting our beliefs as an aggregation of our changing environment. Philip Tetlock is a forecasting expert and a professor dedicated to helping people change their minds.  He said:  "Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded." [iii-a] But people find it challenging to test their beliefs, especially when those new data fail to confirm legacy beliefs. [iii-b]  Avoiding ignorance is further achieved by dedicating our limited attention to the things that matter in our lives.  Is gossiping about the latest political scandal interesting?  Perhaps - like being entertained by a new movie.  However, unless you are a policymaker, your limited attention is more useful for those things in our sphere of influence. Your "Thinking Globally" attentions should be guided by your opportunity for "Acting Locally."

4. Not seeking immediate gratification.  This is one of our more challenging “nots.”  Availability bias is a strong cognitive bias encouraging us to fulfill our desires TODAY. [iii-c]  Our personal health and personal finances are two pillars of long-term health and happiness.  It is our genome creating challenges to save, eat properly, and exercise.  Saving for the future is like accepting a small loss today.  At the end of the article, a link is provided with decision processes to help you manage our immediate gratification nature.

5. Not seeking risk avoidance. There is a nuanced but essential difference between risk and ruin. [iii-d] Ruin should be avoided - but risk should be embraced. Especially those risks leading to long-term value. There are many examples, like most personal finance and personal health decisions. Next, is an employment example.

Many people seek employment with large companies. Large companies provide a salary and a perception of employment stability. However, surveys show that employees are often unhappy. [iii-e] Also, based on economic cycles, large commercial companies periodically lay off employees. Thus, the intention to avoid risk by working for a large company could both make you unhappy as well as lead to unforeseen risks.   Proactive employment risk management likely increases happiness AND reduces risk. This can be done by a) thinking of your career as a portfolio of many jobs. Even better, b) becoming a small business and managing a portfolio of client jobs. This thinking empowers you to proactively change jobs as the environment evolves.  Thinking about employment as a portfolio instead of putting all your eggs in one basket allows us to transition from being the “gamble” to being the “gambler” or, from being the “fish” to being the “house.” When times change and your happiness perspective evolves, having a portfolio of employment allows us to adapt and make the most of available opportunities more quickly. [iii-f]   Annie Duke is a world-champion poker player and cognitive scientist. She said:  “Contrary to popular belief, winners quit a lot. That’s how they win.” [iii-g]  To be fair, I have friends in career government jobs. They seem happy and have good reasons to believe they do have lower employment risk. Certainly, if you can find happiness working for large organizations having lower employment risk, more power to you!


The framework suggests five categories NOT to seek.  However, the challenge begs another question:  “What about those people who do seek some or all of these NOT categories?  How should we feel about them?" -- As long as they are not breaking any laws, we should be perfectly ok with them pursuing some or all of these NOT categories.  In fact, Adam Smith defined the invisible hand as the mechanism by which peoples' moral sentiments converge to reconcile in a community of people or marketplace.  Smith recognized that peoples’ motivations are born from a complex mix of selfish and selfless self-interests.

Also, it is challenging for the observer to understand the observed's motivations. So, even if it appears someone is pursuing some or all of the NOT categories, the observer may have it wrong.  Like in the employment example, your friend may be pleased working in a large, bureaucratic government organization. They have found a way to be happy. It just happens not to be for you. Maybe it would be good to ask your friend how they found happiness!?

Diversity strengthens the market.  By embracing our diversity, we enable the market to operate effectively. [iii-h]  Ultimately, it is our judgment that causes pain. [iv-a] We are better off embracing differences, pursuing this framework, and not judging others. [iv-b] We all come to peace in different ways and at different times.

Conversely, we should embrace friends actively avoiding the NOT categories.  It is good to surround ourselves with those with aligned motivations which provide us with positive energy.  But people are so adaptable that sometimes they may be more likely to pursue a NOT category than other times.  Choosing your friends with these NOT categories in mind is a helpful and supportive filter.

My wife and I, both together and separately, do our best to accept our friends as they are, even when their seeking diverges with this framework. As our faith teaches - grace, acceptance, reconciliation, and forgiveness are essential for our long-term relationships. We also, imperfectly, compare our seeking to this framework. Our hunt is to identify and course-correct our fallacious seeking. 


But there are situations - where letting go of a relationship and trusting our faith is the best answer.  Letting go is never easy. 

4. Seeking and not seeking the road to happiness

Our life is full of decisions we need to make. Many of them are more practical to help us be productive - like in the case of education and a career. Many practical decisions are necessary for getting the most out of our income derived from our productivity - like personal finance decisions. The most important decisions involve our contentment and flourishing - like deciding upon the best life partner or feeding our curiosity. Along that road, guides will keep us from straying out-of-bounds. The guides show us what should be avoided as we pursue life's big decisions.

The road to happiness

the road to happiness

5. Concluding with the seeking road

We conclude this article with an invitation. The prior graphic lists the many common in-bounds seeking decisions - for education, career, personal finance, and relationships. Please check out the tools and content to help you make those decisions by following the next link. While all these common decisions are different in the details, they all share a common decision framework. In today's data-abundant information era, maintaining a consistent, repeatable decision process is more important than ever.

6. Notes

[i-b] Levin explores how competition is at the heart of America's constitution and federal governance structure.

[i-c] Wilson (editor), World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, Section - The Human Condition, p. 293, 1991

[i-d] The functional shape of the happiness/income curve relates to the Pareto principle. Within this income/happiness framework, the Pareto principle suggests the income happiness threshold is about 20% of our total possible income. This threshold is where we achieve 80% of our total possible happiness. Going beyond the 80% income suboptimizes our benefit because of diminishing marginal happiness returns of that income. Thus, at this income threshold, we are better off substituting a happiness-generating alternative for income generation.

[i-e] The challenges to decision-making and solutions to overcome those challenges are explored in the article: 

[i-f] British evolutionary biologist, zoologist, and author Richard Dawkins makes the case for our genomes' singular motivation to pass on our genetic code.

Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976

To be fair, why individuals make the decisions that they do certainly goes beyond our DNA and genome. Our environment is a big factor in our DNA's opportunity to reproduce. Our environment certainly impacts our epigenetics - or how our genome gets expressed. However, it is fair to say, that regardless of the "how our hand is dealt" environment, our genome is predictably predisposed to reproduce itself. To explore the interaction between our genome and the environment, please see:

[ii-a] Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines "Via Negativa" as, “The principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.”


[ii-b] Baucells and Sarin cite the fundamental equation of well-being: happiness equals reality minus expectations.

[ii-c] See the sympathy modulation framework for how helpers and the helped modulate. Emotion is tempered between individuals.

Our tendency to overplay our importance relates to a cognitive bias called self-serving bias.

"The self-serving bias refers to a tendency for people to take personal responsibility for their desirable outcomes yet externalize responsibility for their undesirable outcomes."

Shepperd, Malone, Sweeny, Exploring Causes of the Self-serving Bias, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 895-908, 2008

[ii-d] Hulett, Our Trade-off Life: How the 80/20 rule leads to a healthier, wealthier life, The Curiosity Vine, Section 4d, 2023

Friend groups have a significant impact on teens. In fact, based on a University of Virginia study, friends are often more important than parents as a predictor of long-term outcomes. Separating helpful teen relationships from peer pressure leading to an inappropriate college decision is a difficult judgment. But, given the high number of students who begin college but do not finish college, this judgment frequently ends with college objectives not being met.

[iii-b] For a brief tutorial on confirmation bias and reasoning errors, please see:

Hulett, January 6th, 2021, an ignorance example, The Curiosity Vine, 2024

[iii-c] Hulett, Great decision-making and how confidence changes the game, The Curiosity Vine, 2022

[iii-d] "Ergodicity" is the study of the difference between risk and ruin. This article provides a foundation:

[iii-e] Hartner, U.S. Employee Engagement Needs a Rebound in 2023, Gallup - workplace, 2023

[iii-h] Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

To put a fine point on the "By embracing our diversity, we enable the market to operate effectively" comment. No market is perfect, especially given market participants are flawed human beings. However, as Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek suggests, a market embracing the diversity of its participants is more likely to effectively allocate resources as compared to alternative approaches.

[iv-a] Aurelius, Meditations, 180 CE

{iv-b] Billy Graham was an American evangelist, ordained Southern Baptist minister, and civil rights advocate. He said: "It's the Holy Spirit's job to convict, God's job to judge, and my job to love."


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