Most people have a fair idea of what they want in life: money, power, love... even if someone's Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life, they at least have the concrete goal of seeking out some important cause that they can devote their abilities to.
And then you have characters that just want contentment in their life: they may not have any real ambitions or grand ideas of destiny or even a solid concept for day to day existence. They just want to be happy... but here's the kicker - they don't know how. No matter how hard they try to find some degree of security and inner peace, happiness always eludes them.
Characters with this problem may appear depressed, motiveless, unable to find joy in everyday life, or they might hide it behind a smiling exterior. They may seek momentary pleasures, only to abandon them when the fun wears off and return to searching; they may hunt for something new and different that might be able to bring them the happiness they seek - a hobby, perhaps, or an addiction - or else disconsolately wait for something to bring happiness to them. They may even be manipulated by people who know how to exploit their need for contentment. Whatever the case, they're never quite contented with what they have.
Over time, this can form the basis of a character arc in which they gradually find something that can give them a sense of lasting contentment, or a Fatal Flaw that drives them to make terrible mistakes in pursuit of their desired nirvana.
Expect this to come with a dose of Wanting Is Better Than Having. May be combined with Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life or So What Do We Do Now? if this strikes after a character's great quest is completed and no replacement mission can be found.
Anime & Manga
- In Tamagotchi: Happiest Story in the Universe!, the characters enter the world of a book called The World's Happiest Story, starring a character named Happy whose one goal is to find happiness. Problem is, not only has every attempt he's made - including stuff like becoming rich and learning lots of magic spells - failed, but the page containing the end of the story has been ripped out, so Mametchi and his friends have to write a happy ending for him. Near the end of the film, he finally comes to the conclusion that being with friends is the true meaning of happiness, which is enough to revive Mametchi's pet Hapihapitchi who had died from using up too much happiness energy.
- Fate/Zero: Kirei's problem is he's been selected as a contestant for the Holy Grail War, and if he wins he gets to wish for whatever he desires. But having lived a passionless life with nothing appealing to him, Kirei doesn't know what would make him happy. It takes him being paired with the indulgent king Gilgamesh, who's tasted every pleasure in life, to awaken Kirei to his subconscious sadism and discover real happiness from witnessing others suffer.
- In Rainbow Rowell's Runaways, this is Karolina's main character arc from "You Can't Hide" onwards. With her academic career in shambles and her relationship with Nico having hit a plateau, she becomes a superheroine again because Good Feels Good.
- Additionally, she wishes to get Nico involved, hoping it would help their relationship. This is one of the reasons why both of them join the J-Team under Doc Justice and indeed, both are happier.
- In The Land of What Might-Have-Been, the Hellion is a Psychopathic Manchild who collects "dolls," plays pranks and murders people out of a childish desire for temporary happiness. This proves the main reason for the Hellion's Villainous Breakdown: in kidnapping Dorothy, she has everything she's ever wanted, but she still isn't happy - and isn't even sure why she wanted her in the first place.
- Alongside his desperate need to be loved "on his own terms", this is the Tragic Dream of the title character in Citizen Kane, hence the mysterious "rosebud": it's actually the sled he owned when he was a child, symbolizing the last time in his life he was truly happy and contented with his lot before Mr Thatcher took him away from his parents; he found the sleigh again as an adult, but he couldn't regain the sense of innocent joy. In much the same way that he tried to find love by lavishing people with pointless gifts and sacrificing nothing of himself, Charles Foster Kane tried to find happiness by collecting artworks and junk in equal measure, but none of it brought him any real happiness - to the point that some of the statues he bought were never even removed from their crates. In the end, Kane dies alone, unhappy and unfulfilled.
- T2 Trainspotting:
- Twenty years after choosing life in the previous film, Mark Renton finds himself divorced, childless, redundant from his job, fresh from a heart attack and back in Edinburgh: he now has no idea what to do with himself or what could bring him joy and ends up falling in with Sick Boy's con artist antics because he can't think of anything better to do with his time. However, though he does enjoy slipping back into his long-abandoned criminal lifestyle, he eventually makes it clear that he's still pretty sad, his new "choose life" rant featuring a mention of "the slow reconciliation towards what you can get, rather than what you always hoped for."
- Spud also falls into this, but in a different way: as a recovering heroin addict, he's looking for a new hobby that can keep him grounded and happy - in other words, a healthier kind of addiction. He toys around with various ideas, including jogging, building, boxing, until at last, he settles for chronicling the escapades he and his friends used to get into as a series of short stories. They end up getting published at the end of the film.
- In The World's End, it eventually becomes clear that this is at once Gary King's motivation and the reason why he's secretly very depressed: he had no idea what to do with his life after high school despite the sense of "promise and optimism," so he just went on pursuing the same thrills as he did as a teenager until he ended up alienating all his friends in progressively more selfish acts of hedonism. Believing that the Golden Mile pub crawl was the happiest night of his life, he's now determined to re-enact it one last time with his friends - and then kill himself at the end of it.
- Quentin Coldwater of The Magicians has this as a primary motivation and a Fatal Flaw mentioned very early on in the novel: despite his academic success, he feels unfulfilled, and seeks the world of Fillory for the simple fact that it's meant to be always happy there. This remains with him throughout the novel, serving as the bedrock for every real mission he sets himself: his eagerness to excel at Brakebills, his search for a purpose in life after graduation, and his search for a heroic journey in Fillory; for good measure, it leaves him Allergic to Routine, eventually dissatisfied with wherever he ends up - even Fillory - and ends up getting himself and his friends seriously hurt.
Live Action TV
- The plot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is kicked off by Rebecca Bunch realizing that she's not happy in her New York job even though she's all kinds of successful, and on a lark goes to a small west coast town to stalk an ex-boyfriend and try to be happier in general, a process complicated by her mental issues and the fact she doesn't know what will make her happy. She initially thinks that this guy can make her happy, but it eventually becomes much more complicated.
- This is entirely the point of Euphoria, as Rue, Jules, Cassie, Maddy, and Kat all seek out some way to get enough pleasure to distract them from problems in their lives. For Rue, it's drugs and later a relationship. For Jules, it's random hookups. For Cassie, it's turning herself into an Extreme Doormat. For Maddy, it's becoming a kept woman for her abusive boyfriend. And for Kat, it's conning perverts on the Internet into sending her cash.
- Nathaniel "Nate" Fisher, Jr of Six Feet Under is repeatedly called out for this. In general, Nate's whole MO is that he'll do something impulsive (like marrying Lisa just because she's pregnant) and expect it to change his whole life. When it doesn't, he immediately starts seeking excuses to get out of it.
- In The Umbrella Academy (2019), it's pointed out that Number Five has this problem - despite his claims of "not looking for happy." For most of his life, he's been exclusively focused on a single goal, either serving Sir Reginald's goals, surviving the Bad Future, working for the Time Police or trying to find a way of stopping the apocalypse; once the world is apparently saved, he doesn't know what to do with himself - not just because he's now without a purpose in life, but because he doesn't know how to be happy after spending decades with nothing to be happy about. As such, he's left placidly drinking margaritas with his Companion Cube for a while, barely reacting when Hazel seemingly arrives to kill him. He's almost relieved when the world turns out to still be in trouble.
- Combined neatly with Wanting Is Better Than Having in Irving Berlin's "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)."
- Lorraine Maillard of The Park suffers from this. Having grown up in a dysfunctional family, she had no idea what she wanted out of life and no advice on what to do with it. Having found some small happiness with a boyfriend, she lost what little she had when he was killed in a workplace accident, and tried to draw some degree of contentment in raising their son, Callum - admitting that they were "always looking for our own house of candy." Thanks to Lorraine's depression, it was uphill work disrupted by alcoholism, poverty, and the possible arrival of real ghosts. Following the death of Callum, Loraine gives up on seeking happiness altogether; by the events of The Secret World, all she wants is to end her enforced immortality and die permanently.
- The Suffering: Ties That Bind, Torque is revealed to have this trait; as a child, when asked what he wants to be, all he could think of was "happy." As such, he led a largely aimless life up until a) he fell in love with Carmen, and b) Blackmore recruited him; his wife and his employer kept him anchored and contented, but unfortunately, the two ended up in conflict: Carmen inspired him to leave Blackmore's organization, and Blackmore arranged for Carmen to be murdered. As such, it's no surprise that over the course of both games, Torque has no goals of his own other than to survive and actually has to be told what to do by just about everyone, from Carmen's ghost to Dr Killjoy.
- This is a bit of a theme in Bojack Horseman: near all the main characters are extremely flawed people who just want some semblance of stable happiness in their life as they make their way through the rigors of an unforgiving entertainment industry - the lead character especially, trying to find any reason to keep going on long after his glory days as a '90s sitcom star has faded. More often not, they run into complications - either from reality or just their own vices that tend to trip them up and often send them right back into square one. Over the course of the series, they get better and gain some small victories with some of their arcs detailing if they can build on that to find what they seek.
- In the Love, Death & Robots episode "Zima Blue" the eponymous robot-turned-human-turned-cyborg has been seeking universal truth through art for over a century, creating progressively bigger and more spectacular murals and augmenting his body beyond the human norm in pursuit of enlightenment. However, he has finally learned that what he really wanted all along was happiness, which he hasn't known since he was just a pool-cleaning robot. As such, Zima's last artwork features him diving into a replica of the pool he used to clean, switching off his higher brain functions, shedding his upgrades, and reverting to the menial machine he started out as - which then begins cleaning the pool again, retaining just enough intelligence to take pleasure in the knowledge of a job well done.
- People who suffer from major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder often want for nothing more than those feelings to just go away so they can be happy and content. The problem is the major causes of these are largely unknown, often leaving it a shot in the dark in how to actually treat them, and typically at best all that can be done is steps to alleviate symptoms. It's why people with these react so negatively to being told to "just cheer up" or "get thicker skin", as it's a truly ignorant thing to say and akin to telling someone with a disease to "just don't be sick."