The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

We are shoveling mulch like our lives depend upon it.

My three kids are loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and I’m hauling and dumping and spreading and sweating. Eventually, my nine-year-old son Quinn asks a completely reasonable question. “Why are we going so fast?” I tell him I want the flower beds to look beautiful when his mom gets home. To which he responds with another totally reasonable question: “Because you are trying make her happy?”

The word “exactly” is on the tip of my tongue. But then I bite my tongue.


Photo Credit: Kurhan (Bigstock)

I have an opportunity here to save my son a lot of heartache, disappointment, resentment, and conflict. You see, many of us spend our whole lives trying to make our loved ones happy. Years of believing our worthiness can be tallied by the number of smiles we put on the faces of other people. Years of bitter disappointment, as our success rate remains frustratingly low. And when we don’t get the results we’re looking for, we get ashamed of our failures.

Or we get resentful, thinking of our loved ones as hopelessly ungrateful people.

The truth, though, is that they are just people. Ordinary people, with their own inner world. Their own moods and wounds and worries and hang-ups. Ordinary people who are responsible for their own ordinary emotions, just as we are responsible for our own.

When it comes to ordinary people—all of us, in other words—there are at least three good reasons we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy:

First, you can’t do it. I can barely make my kids brush their own teeth; what are the chances I will somehow figure out the trick to rearranging their inner world, with all of its heart and soul and neurotransmitters and synapses? If they don’t brush their teeth, they get consequences, and that helps a little. Have you ever tried to give someone a consequence for being unhappy? It backfires.

Second, sometimes, what makes someone happy isn’t even good for them. For instance, if I gave my kids everything that makes them happy, they’d sit in front of televisions and iPads all day long, eating popcorn and chocolate, drinking juice and soda. We’d probably have to catheterize them. If you’re primary goal in life is to make someone happy, you will often harm them in your effort to happy them.

Third, sometimes, what makes someone else happy isn’t good for you. For example, if someone is only happy when they’re “right,” and you stay silent so they can feel happy, while all of the good and lovely and important things you have to say remain trapped inside of you, then trying to make this someone happy is the last thing you should be doing. There are a multitude of ways to slowly wither and die inside; doing so while telling yourself that you’re doing it on behalf of someone you love is a particularly insidious one.

So, Quinn is waiting for an answer, but instead I respond with a question.

“Bud, when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re determined to be grumpy for a while, is there anything I can do to make you happy?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and then admits with a rueful smile, “No.” Then, I tell him this:

You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

Perhaps it sounds like I’m mincing words here, like I’m creating a fine line to walk on. But consider those flowers in my wife’s mulched beds. Do I make them grow when I water them? No. I increase the odds of their flourishing, but there are all sorts of forces and powers within the flowers themselves that will dictate their growth apart from my actions. And there are all sorts of uncontrollable circumstances—rain and sun and hail, and hungry deer, for instance—that will have a far greater influence on their outcome than my hose.

Similarly, the burden of love is desiring the flourishing of another—their happiness—while accepting that you are limited in your ability to make it happen.

Does that sound hard? It is. It is very hard. But it is also very good. Because this is true of love, as well:

The burden of love is also the blessing of love.

Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, without concern for the outcome, is the culmination of true love—it is freedom from conditionality and thus it is freedom itself, for both the giver the receiver.

Or, in the words of Frederick Buechner,

By all the laws of both logic and simple arithmetic, to give yourself away in love to another would seem to mean that you end up with less of yourself left than you had to begin with. But the miracle is that just the reverse is true, logic and arithmetic go hang. To give yourself away in love to somebody else—as a man and a woman give themselves away to each other at a wedding—is to become for the first time yourself fully. To live not just for yourself alone anymore but for another self to whom you swear to be true—plight your troth to, your truth to—is in a new way to come fully alive.

When my wife pulls in the driveway, the car stops and she gets out and she raves about the beauty of the flower beds. We increased the odds of her happiness. And this time, what we longed for happened. Next time, it might not.

And that is okay. In fact, it is better than okay.

Indeed, that is the burden and blessing of love.

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

23 thoughts on “The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

  1. Thank you Dr Kelly for this well put together balanced view on making others happy. Indeed Love is a double edged sword that is both bitter and sweet and cuts both ways. It does take mindfullness to consider yourself and the other to strike into a love that is nourishing to both.

  2. This is so lierating. I have always wanted to make others happy, as I expect them to make me happy. I’ve slowly grown out of it, but this clarifies the inadequacy of my actions very well. Thank you.Now I can grow in more freedom from conditionality.

    You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

    Similarly, the burden of love is desiring the flourishing of another—their happiness—while accepting that you are limited in your ability to make it happen.

    The burden of love is also the blessing of love.

    Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, without concern for the outcome, is the culmination of true love—it is freedom from conditionality and thus it is freedom itself, for both the giver the receiver.

  3. I love how you make things so easy to understand. It is an inner world, that determines our happiness. What is hard is when we think it is the circumstances that determine our happiness, and so we don’t face our inner world. I have learned the hard way that I can’t make another person not be angry, anxious, etc. by trying to talk them out of it, either. I may be able to increase their odd of not experiencing these toxic emotions, but I can’t change them. Is this part of recognizing boundaries?

  4. Children sure do make us stop and think about what we would have automatically is understandable that I can’t make my partner happy, however, I can enhance the environment to lend towards his choice to be happy. Amazing and well put Kelly.

  5. On this subject, I find that reasons matter. Shame drove me to live much of my life in variations of your 3rd example. Thing is, I was never trying to make others happy; I was always trying to make myself happy. Just in a very round-about (and ineffective) way 🙂
    I’ve certainly suffered from confusion around the basic idea of happiness as well. Trying to feel a certain way all the time isn’t workable, although I’ve tried. I’ve got a friend who tells this story about his search for the eternal buzz: In his late 40’s he worked with a person who claimed happiness was impossible for humans, that the emotion “happy” doesn’t exist. My friend now says “So I stopped trying to be happy. As a result, I’ve never been happier in my life!”
    For much of my life I equated happiness with trying to control outcomes. But the more I tried the further away I got from happiness. So, I try a different approach today. I embrace my lack of control. I embrace the chaos. Oh, I haven’t turned my back on order. I’m not an anarchist. I just understand that both are necessary. Much like my friend I’ve never been happier.

    • So very well said, Mike. And a keen insight that our efforts to make others happy are often not as altruistic as we sometimes think. Sometimes, we’re trying to make them happy to become happy ourselves, because we haven’t learned any other way. I like your way. Quit looking for the ultimate answer to happiness and begin to discover that happiness was available all along.

  6. “Happy Wife, Happy Life”…not exactly accurate though it does seem to be true a lot of the time. Perspective seems to be the key factor in making it work out. My wife was excited to go out last night and enjoy this local event with free stuff from emergency services, vendors, and churches. I was not interested. She noticed. I went anyway; she noticed my effort. It was far from ideal for either of us but I compromised by not making it difficult for her to go and she compromised by not harping on me about being disinterested in a family event. At times, I think certain levels of happiness can be found in not making each other miserable or at least not adding to each other’s misery. It might mean giving space or relinquishing rest/comfort, but what better way to sacrifice out of pure love than to give of yourself with zero expectations in return. When you selflessly take on misery for the benefit of someone else it becomes an action similar to what Christ did for the entirety of the human race. If you are of the faith that believes His example is a perfect example, then you know this is the ultimate path to true happiness. Think about it; faithfulness, repentance, forgiveness, charity; all require a sacrifice to function genuinely. They all create, sustain, and perpetuate true love. Good stuff that Alfred, Lord Tennyson said was better to have had and lost than never had at all.

    • It seems to me that you were giving each other grace, JC. You were seeing the sincerity of her desire to go and responding to it, and she was seeing the sincerity of your effort to join in, albeit imperfect. It may not have been a perfectly happy night, but it sounds like it was a graceful one.

  7. I love JC’s response and his quote.
    Let’s just say Dr K, you don’t make me miserable! 🙂

  8. I like to make people happy. It makes me happy. And this is what I am trying to do : i do things because i want to do them and it is even nicer if i might make somebody happy. But i cannot expect to have this somebody happy because as you said, it might or it might not make him/her happy. This is something i am working on. Be happy without expecting things back. Not sure I am making myself clear…

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