The Intellectual Trap


I’m currently reading Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree WorldWithin the book he outlines the most common “traps” people fall into that prevent them from finding freedom and ultimately happiness within their lives.

One of the first traps Browne mentions is The Intellectual Trap:

“The Intellectual Trap is the belief that your emotions should conform to a preconceived standard.”

He provides two clear examples of this trap:

“A good example is the businessman who has to keep reminding himself that his $70,000-a-year job and carpeted office are what he’s always wanted. Or the woman who keeps telling herself she must be happy, now that she finally has a husband, four children, and a home in suburbia.

Each of them is living a life he’s been told should make him happy; but if it doesn’t, he attempts to make his emotions respond.”

These examples illustrate a concept I’ve written about before: the common goal
fallacy. It’s the idea that just because a goal is common, such as owning a home, holding a corporate job, or living in suburbia, doesn’t mean it is necessarily the right goal to pursue. Nor is it necessarily the goal that will lead you to experiencing the most happiness. The reason for this is because not everyone derives happiness from the same experiences and circumstances. Browne offers further insight into this phenomenon:

“But it’s important to remember that happiness is an emotion. You can’t turn it on at will. You feel it as an involuntary response to the conditions in your life at a given moment. Your emotional nature (like almost everything about you) is unique. What makes someone else happy might be interesting, curious, even fascinating to know; but it doesn’t tell you what would make you happy.”

This insight is at the very core of the intellectual trap. This is why blissfully “chasing happiness” is actually a poor strategy. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to tell someone to “choose to be happy”. Happiness is not a choice, it’s simply an emotion you feel as a result of doing something. You don’t directly choose to be happy, you choose to live in a way that results in happiness, and more specifically in a way that is tailored to optimize your happiness.

You might be happy when you are working on a project that engages the full capacity of your skills and knowledge. You might be happy when you’re lifting weights, or you might be happy when you’re just sitting on the back porch of your house enjoying the weather. Regardless, there is no panacea for finding happiness. Just because someone has found a particular way of living that maximizes their happiness does not mean that same lifestyle will maximize your happiness and well-being.

This isn’t to say that the principles someone lives by aren’t helpful in understanding how to live a good life. For example, I’m an avid reader of The Minimalists and I agree with nearly their entire philosophy on how to live a good life through owning less and only spending money and time on stuff and people that add a huge amount of value to their lives. This doesn’t mean I need to move to Montana and live in a cabin for several months like they did. Nor do I have to start wearing the same style of clothing each day like they do to minimize the choices I have to make each day. I can adopt their style of thinking and embrace a minimalist way of living in my own unique manner that aligns with my nature.

Browne goes on to explain the importance of understanding your unique emotional nature and how it relates to finding happiness:

“You can’t find happiness by telling yourself to “be happy.” Nor can you find it by doing the things that others have said make them happy. Nor can you find it by telling yourself that a “good” man or a “moral” woman or a “rational” person would be happy doing a certain list of things.
To find happiness, you must know how your unique emotional nature responds to things. You must observe and take seriously your own emotional reactions. For if you attempt to fit your emotions to a preconceived standard, you lose touch with yourself and blind yourself to the most important part of yourself — to what would make you happy.”

This is why I can’t offer you specific advice on what activities to do or what places to live or even what specific people to hang out with in order to find happiness. What makes you happy is unique to you. But what I can offer is this piece of advice: 

Always choose freedom.

The more freedom you have, the more power you have to consciously choose how to spend your days in ways that maximize your happiness and fulfillment. This is the reason I even started this blog in the first place – to spread ideas on how to live a free life.

Financial independence is the most powerful tool I have come across that one can leverage to gain a tremendous amount of freedom in life. It provides you with the freedom to spend each day how you like. But even before you reach this point there are still ways to life a free life, even if you do have a 9-5 job.

You can make the conscious decision to spend less time watching TV, scrolling through social media, and keeping track of 24/7 news. Likewise, you can choose to spend less money on stuff you don’t even need that isn’t adding value to your life. One of my favorite quotes regarding how we spend our time is from Ryan Holiday:

“All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect and to get things we don’t even want.”

Instead of living in a way that pleases others, you can instead spend your time in ways that genuinely add value to your life. You can choose to spend more time with your family and close friends. You can choose to do creative work – read, write, start a blog, create artwork, whatever you enjoy doing outside of your 9-5 job. You can choose to live actively instead of passively and start creating more and consuming less.

Make the choice to let go of the preconceived standards people have set for you. These standards may have been set by your parents, siblings, teachers, or others. Regardless, keep in mind that the advice people provide you on how to live a good life is solely based off of their experiences and unique emotional nature. What makes them happy will not necessarily make you happy. Learn to live in a way that aligns with your unique nature and gives you the freedom and flexibility to do activities that make you happy, not what you have been told will make you happy.

Most people aren’t currently living a free life, so how reliable can their life advice be that they offer you? Because at the end of the day, you are the only person who has to live with the consequences of the choices you make on how to live. This is important to realize. No matter what people tell you which profession you should have, what house you should buy, how many kids you should have, how often you should travel, you are ultimately the person that has to live with those decisions. Keep this in mind:

Nobody knows you better than you do.

This means you are the most qualified individual to know what specific activities, what type of people, and what lifestyle makes you happy. The more you start ignoring the advice on what should make you happy and the more you actually start living in a way that you know makes you happy, the more fulfilling and meaningful your life will be.

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4 Replies to “The Intellectual Trap”

  1. I do think happiness is a choice in that we have the ability to shape our lives and our choices–which then result in our happiness. I feel this way about college education. Everyone treats it like the pinnacle of success, but it’s not the right path for everyone. Trade schools or starting a career right out of high school are still wonderful and profitable options, but we’re spoon-fed “you must go to college to make money.”

    At the end of the day, it’s all about doing what’s best for you. Follow that inner gut instinct.

  2. I spent months at work telling myself I must be happy. I had a good paying job and great friends. No matter how hard I tried, I was miserable. I attempted to choose to be happy, choose to look at the awesomeness of my life, but I couldn’t make myself happy. Browne is right an emotion can’t be turned by will-power alone, sometimes the environment is a bad fit. I had fallen for the common goal fallacy. I just didn’t know it was called that.
    I enjoyed this article, thank you for putting it together. I look forward to your next one!

  3. Interesting stuff here Zach.. 100% agree you’ve really got to define our own definition of “happy”, “freedom”, “safe” etc however not sure I’m 100% on board with this point:
    “You can’t find happiness by telling yourself to “be happy.” Nor can you find it by doing the things that others have said make them happy.”
    Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted although and the 2nd sentence I agree with however generally the way we perceive our situation reflects how we feel about it i.e. if I view myself as a failure even after losing 20kg’s when my goal was 30kg’s then I’m a failure and the opposite..

    It’s interesting though and I see it as questioning even our own views, beliefs etc, which is probably the point.. Love it though man! Keep it up 🙂

    1. Jef, that’s a a great point. I do think it’s possible to “convince” yourself to look at a situation optimistically and choose to be happy in that regard, but I think this is more of a short-term fix. I think to really experience long-term happiness and fulfillment you have to be living in a way that aligns with what you value – this leads to happiness as a side effect instead of forcing yourself to choose to be happy. I definitely see where you’re coming from though, thanks for the feedback 🙂

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