When Obligation Stops You From Being Happy

Evolving in a relationship with duty is key to growth. Combining desire with obligation is a necessary art. In fact, doing it well is one of the best guarantees of well-being and mental health.
When Obligation Stops You From Being Happy
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 09 February, 2023

Like it or not (and most of the time we don’t), we’re all subject to certain obligations, virtually from when we’re born. Learning to respond to these duties is part of normal and healthy growth. However, if you take it to extremes, it ends up blocking your opportunity to be happy.

Obligation is a factor that helps to establish and develop the reality principle. This is the awareness of the limits that your desires have, depending on the guidelines and demands of your environment. Indeed, everyone, at some point, must give up doing what they want because they must follow another path.

In some cases, living according to our obligations becomes extremely invasive. If you do this, you reach situations in which your desires end up being inhibited, often to extreme degrees, and your only obligation is to function. When this happens, you also relinquish the opportunity to be happy.

If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all .”

-C.S. Lewis-

worried woman thinking
People who are carried away by obligation are usually extremely demanding of themselves.

Obligation as a guideline of conduct

As human beings, our natural tendency is to follow our desires or, in other words, to do what we want. An important part of a child’s upbringing consists of introducing into their conscience the concept of obligation or duty. For example, they want to eat a whole box of sweets, but they must moderate themselves. Or, they want to hit another child because they took a toy from them, but they mustn’t.

To be part of the human community you must renounce many of your desires to follow the path of obligation. However, your upbringing, or certain life experiences, can lead to you adopting duties that aren’t necessary for you to live in a civilized society. In effect, you respond to ideas or beliefs that aren’t always valid.

In fact, if you end up living your life based on obligation, you come to see your own desires as intrusive or negative. Consequently, you repress or deny them. For example, you might prefer not to take vacations, as you consider it to be far more useful and productive to continue working all year long.

Obligation as an obstacle

If you live your life ruled by obligation you’ll probably be extremely demanding of yourself. It’s not so much that you need to do things perfectly, but you feel you have to fully correspond to the demands made by the authorities or the established norms of society.

You don’t evaluate the convenience or validity of these demands but merely possess a deep desire to comply with them. Your coordinates of duty are established by others and your desire is to adjust to them. Leaving these parameters causes you concern, if not anxiety. In fact, what you truly desire has no place in your life. You simply want to comply with the duties imposed on you to avoid any anguish.

Consequently, your obligations become obstacles to your happiness. On the other hand, if you were to choose duty in a reasoned and autonomous way, however hard it may be, it’d coincide with what you want and wouldn’t conflict with your happiness. Like someone who commits themselves to a cause that demands sacrifices but, deep down, are doing what they want.

On the other hand, when an obligation is imposed from outside, you don’t reaffirm yourself. Quite the contrary, in fact. You deny yourself and fulfill your duty so as not to contradict the figure concerned or the norm of authority.

Fawning employee talking to his female boss
Whoever lives for their obligations leaves themselves aside because they’re extremely conditioned.

The duty to be happy

Should duty be completely forgotten in favor of desire or pleasure? The answer is no. If you only do what you want, you don’t have the reference point of obligation to make a contrast and, consequently, you don’t feel satisfied. The same is true in the opposite case; acting only according to duty is like imposing systematic torture on yourself.

If you live your life ruled by your obligations, you’re not being an exemplary human being, just an extremely conditioned one. The foundation of your actions doesn’t lie in freedom or autonomy, but in a directive and, possibly, the fear of contradicting it. For the same reason, you make duty an automatism and not an expression of your being.

Ideally, you should maintain a balance between duty and desire. One gives meaning to the other. In fact, it makes it possible to generate the contrast that makes spontaneous emotions of effort and satisfaction flow. Finally, it’s worth remembering that fulfilling your duties is laudable, as long as it doesn’t sabotage your own happiness.

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.

  • De Olaso, J. (2013). Paradojas de la inhibición. In V Congreso Internacional de Investigación y Práctica Profesional en Psicología XX Jornadas de Investigación Noveno Encuentro de Investigadores en Psicología del MERCOSUR. Facultad de Psicología-Universidad de Buenos Aires.
  • González, A. M. (2010). Deber ser.
  • Ricoeur, P., & de Mendilaharsu, S. A. (1967). Principio de placer y principio de realidad. Revista Uruguaya de Psicoanálisis, 9(1), 65-84.

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