Einhorn's Fortune Cookie Theory of Happiness

Happiness means being clear, not just about what you do want in your life, but also about what you don't.
Einhorn's Fortune Cookie Theory of Happiness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Einhorn’s theory of happiness defines those decisions you make every day to get away from what you don’t want in your life. Think about it, it’s a simple idea, but at the same time extremely powerful. In fact, it’s a different approach – as well as curious – that deviates somewhat from the classic perspectives of positive psychology.

It was a psychologist from the University of Chicago who proposed this theory. His name was Hillel J. Einhorn. It came about when he had one of those “Eureka” moments in the 1970s while opening a fortune cookie. Inside, was a simple message: “Don’t think about all the things you want that you don’t have. Think of all the things that you don’t want that you don’t have”.

This simple reasoning inspired Dr. Einhorn to develop what we know as the theory of behavioral decision. It defines that set of decisions and behaviors that you put into practice to achieve not only what you want and long for, but also to try and to avoid what it is that’s completely obscuring your happiness…

Maybe you’re happier than you think. You have a lot of what you want and many of those things that cause you suffering aren’t present in your life.

Woman thinking about Einhorn's theory of happiness

The three keys to Einhorn’s theory of happiness

Hillel J. Einhorn used to say that you’re happier than you think. Faced with this statement, you might say “Really?” How do I know that?”. To answer this, we’ll recall an anecdote that the Greek sophist and poet Diagoras of Melos once explained.

He went to visit a shrine erected to the god of the sea, Poseidon. There, the poet was fascinated to see the beautiful offerings that the sailors’ families used to leave to ask that the sailors return safely to land. However, he also discovered an area where memories were left for all those men who’d never returned and whose bodies were never recovered. Diagoras of Melos shuddered and said something to himself.

He told himself that he was very lucky not to be a sailor. In this way, he started to consider that happiness involved avoiding certain anguish, situations, and ways of life. Although it was a somewhat selfish point of view, it certainly held some truth. In fact, this is exactly what Dr. Einhorn thought when he read his message on that fortune cookie; the same one that served to enunciate the so-called Einhorn theory of happiness.

What you don’t have and would like to have equals eternal suffering

The approach to happiness that Einhorn designed, starts from the premise that many of us think that we’ll be happy when we finally have what we want. It’s the most classic way of thinking. However, it’s also a source of suffering. Because if we always look at what we don’t have, we’ll live in an eternal state of feeling that we lack something.

“I’ll be happy when I find my ideal partner “, “I’ll be happy when I find a good job”, “How happy I’ll be when I achieve all my goals!” Let’s face it, you’ve long been led to believe that only when you try hard enough do you achieve what you want in order to be happy.

However, life is too complex, and being happy isn’t about effort. What’s more, sometimes, despite achieving something concrete, you still feel empty, frustrated, and as if you’re lacking something.  What can you do?

Be grateful

Einhorn’s theory of happiness emphasizes a concrete fact we’ve already mentioned. You’re happy but you don’t know it. Indeed , you’re happier than you think, you just haven’t realized it yet. Einhorn himself published an investigation in the 80s in which he pointed out something important.

He stated that your well-being, happiness, and satisfaction form a part of your judgments and behaviors. In fact, if you’re not able to reason and realize what it is you have, you’ll never achieve that long-awaited happiness. Furthermore, focusing only on what you don’t have can sometimes be a source of motivation, but also of suffering. There are those who’ll apply skillful strategies to achieve what they want and will succeed, but this isn’t a constant. Indeed, people aren’t always necessarily successful.

Appreciating what you already have and what you want is essential. Being grateful, being aware that you have the love of your family, your partner and your good friends, as well as your health and a future ahead, is always a good starting point. Sometimes, happiness is just that. And “that”, let’s face it, is just wonderful.

Woman blowing a dandelion to represent Einhorn's theory of happiness

The Einhorn theory of happiness: what you don’t want (and don’t have) in your life

Einhorn’s theory of happiness, proposed in the 70s, highlights an aspect that, although simple and obvious, isn’t without interest or reason. It concerns the satisfaction of being able to move away or defend yourself from what you don’t want in your life. It may sound basic, but it actually implies some extremely significant actions.

It means, for example, being skilled at problem-solving. It involves being proactive in order to act before adversity hits. Furthermore, it’s knowing how to handle your own adversity when you experience it. It also means getting away from those who hurt you and developing skills to manage your stress and anguish.

In reality, this isn’t a particularly well-known perspective. However, it’s both interesting and practical. Indeed, at a time when so many self-help posts and approaches to happiness abound, psychologist Hillel J. Einhorn left us with two valuable tips. Joy lies in appreciating what you already have, and taking action regarding what you don’t want, in your life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Dawes, R. M. (2006). An analysis of structural availability biases, and a brief study. In K. Fiedler & P. Juslin (Eds.) Information sampling and adaptive cognition (pp. 147-152). Cambridge University Press.
  • Hogarth, R. M., & Klayman, J. (1988). Hillel J. Einhorn (1941–1987). American Psychologist, 43(8), 656.
  • Goldstein, W. M., & Einhorn, H. J. “Expression theory and the preference reversal phenomena”, Psychological Review, 1987, 94 (2), 236–254
  • Einhorn, H. J.; Hogarth, R. M. (1981). “Behavioral Decision Theory: Processes of Judgement and Choice”. Annual Review of Psychology. 32: 53–88.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.