Happiness is a bucket

Happiness and obtaining it has been written about a lot in recent years (I’ve admittedly read my fair share of these things), like there’s some secret and complex formula that we all must decode and follow in order to obtain this holy grail of emotions.

Even thinking about writing a post about happiness, how to get it, and posing like I’m some authority on it makes me feel so pretentious I need a shower, but I did hear one great analogy recently that I wanted to share.

Happiness is a bucket with a hole in the bottom.

You can put all kinds of things in your bucket to fill it—food, drink, material goods, romantic partners, a job, pretty much anything—and while it can get considerably full, there will always be that hole, slowly draining everything that comes in.

It often takes a long-term effort to fill that bucket, as in the case of establishing a career you love. Sometimes something as simple as a phone call from an old friend can fill it. And occasionally everything can be going so well that the hole seems temporary clogged.

Conversely, a bad job or relationship can be a complete drain on everything else that is deposited into a bucket, into a life.

For as long as I can remember, I was always waiting for the day that I would ‘arrive’—the day my bucket would be permanently full. I would look at the lives of those much older than I (especially my brother and sister) and think they had it all right then. I wanted their fun dorm and friends, their tight after-school hangout group and spot, their collection of framed memories on the wall.

Then when I got to those once-desired ages, I found myself wanting their grad school life or young professional career in the big city. I impatiently wanted to ‘come into my own’, and I wanted it all figured out right then.

But only recently has it hit me that I will never arrive.

Paradoxically, realizing this has made my life feel more whole than it ever has before. Contentment—having a full bucket—comes by virtue of no longer needing to seek external gratification; the bucket’s saturation remains steady.

To borrow a Buddhist idea, Contentment is the ultimate goal because when it is achieved, there is nothing more to seek until it is gone again. This of course cannot be maintained for very long, as then there would be no balance in life. In other words, my bucket will never stay completely full, and if it did, there would be no incentive for me to do anything.

Arrival and coming into oneself is something only visible in the rear-view mirror. It’s a nice thing to look at now and again, but look too much and you will wreck and destroy what’s in front of you. Focus on enjoying and developing what is had here and now, and the bucket stays brimming.


  1. Sandra fishwick Reply

    I didn’t realise that every time I was filling the bucket that I was leaking everywhere. I to have been searching for the elusive happiness. As U2 song says I still haven’t found what I am looking for.

  2. Julia Mesnikoff Reply

    This idea of “never arriving” has so much truth in it. My version, closely related, has become central enough to me that I think of it as a “mantra” (though tend to be wary of that word in general). Mine is, “You don’t get it all this time around.” When I was twenty I was still vaguely imagining a life with marriage, children, working as a professor or owning my own school, becoming a professional painter, having a poem published in The New Yorker, writing a novel, living off the grid, possibly fitting in clothing design in there. . . and while there are probably a few people who could fit all of those lives into one nine-decade span, I’ve made peace with the fact that it won’t be me. Making that peace — saying to myself, “THIS, here in front of me, is what’s going on in my life. Live THIS. Be here now” — has been a tremendous step toward consistent happiness for me. I do find tremendous tension between accepting what is (being here now) and being goal-directed and effortful. Both are so critical, but balancing them is complex. Great post, and I REALLY like the tagline of your blog.

    • Julia! Thanks so much for the awesome comment. . .I can relate completely to wanting to try and wear twenty different hats all at once, and sometimes the decision on what to actually focus my time and efforts on is a stressful one, but in the end I find myself happier and more ‘complete’ when I hone in on just a few things. As it happens frequently enough, next time I start to feel the urge to figure it all out right NOW, I am going to try out your mantra and hopefully bring myself back to the present.

      I am glad to hear that you like the tagline– in truth, the site is undergoing a major re-design in the coming weeks and I was thinking about ditching the tagline for another one I had in mind, but maybe I will re-consider and see what some others think as well. 🙂

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