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Happiness Realized Too Late

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"The thing about happiness is that you only know you had it when it's gone. I mean, you may think to yourself that you're happy, but... you don't really believe it. You focus on the petty bullshit, or the next job, or whatever. It's only looking back, by comparison to what comes after, that you really understand: that's what happiness felt like."
Conrad Kellogg, Fallout 4

Sometimes, a character will spend their life pursuing a goal, often to the exclusion of all others. It can be spectacularly ambitious, or it can be quite simple; it might not even be all that focused - maybe the character's just anxious for a change of scenery, or Aimlessly Seeking Happiness.

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Regardless of whether the quest ends in success or failure, the character may find themselves looking back on their old life and realizing that they were genuinely happier beforehand; in some cases, they may have actually had what they wanted all along, but couldn't see it.

In the end, the tragedy of the situation is that their old life is gone forever, and they can never regain the happiness they once had. A few rare exceptions to the rule exist in which something of the old happiness can be reclaimed, but these are few and far between.

May involve Belated Love Epiphany in realizations of romantic happiness. May feature in cases of All That Glitters and Lonely at the Top.

Compare Was It Really Worth It?. Compare and contrast Wanting Is Better Than Having and Be Careful What You Wish For, which may involve the "success" variant of this trope.

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Examples

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     Anime & Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Greed has spent his life trying to own everything in an attempt to fill what he likens to a feeling of emptiness inside him ever since he was born. However, as Father kills him, Greed belatedly realizes he's happy with the relationships he has formed, satisfying the feeling of emptiness and allowing him to ultimately be at peace in his final moments.

     Fan Works 
  • In the Gravity Falls fanfic All The Worlds A Toybox, Grunkle Ford laments the fact that he had everything he'd ever wanted in Gravity Falls and threw it all away before he realized what he had. As he notes, he was performing groundbreaking research, he was working alongside his best friend, he was living in a town where he felt accepted in spite of his deformities, and he even had enough findings to make himself rich and famous if he'd only publish them... but thanks to his obsessions and Bill Cipher's influence, he didn't even notice how happy he was until it was too late.

     Film - Live Action 
  • Citizen Kane: introduced isolated inside his unfinished palatial mansion, media mogul Charles Foster Kane lies Dying Alone, having lived in seclusion from the world for many years after the wholesale failure of his ambitions and relationships. With his final breath, he utters the word "Rosebud." The movie unfolds in flashback as Intrepid Reporter Jerry Thompson tries to unravel the significance of Kane's dying declaration by interviewing those who knew him. However, no one he talks to knows just who or what Rosebud was, the closest answer he gets is from Kane's butler who concludes he was just saying a nonsense word. Thompson never does solve the mystery, though the answer is shown to the audience in the final scene: It Was His Sled from his childhood that represented a simpler, happy time that Kane could never recover. The conclusion? It is indeed Lonely at the Top.
  • It takes until the end of Clerks and a few wise words from Silent Bob for Dante to conclude he really did want to stay with Veronica rather than return to Caitlyn. But by the time he's done so, his selfish deeds from earlier in the day cause her to break up with him.
  • Gone with the Wind ends with Scarlett realizing that her "love" for Ashley was really a mirage, and that she's really loved Rhett all along. But it's too late, as Rhett leaves her, with his famous "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" farewell.
  • Into the Wild: As he stays trapped and isolated in a remote Alaskan wilderness, Chris has an epiphany that the happiness he was searching for was with his family and all the people he met on his travels, concluding in his journal that "Happiness only real when shared." Unfortunately it's too late for him to reunite with them, and he dies from a mixture of poisoning and starvation soon after.
  • Happy variation in It's a Wonderful Life: with Clarence's help, George ultimately realizes that even with his dreams of becoming an architect and travelling around the world no longer possible, he still has friends and happiness, a realization that convinces him not to commit suicide.
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     Literature 
  • Gone Girl: Despite their marriage having deteriorated into the Masochism Tango, both Nick and Amy realize separately that many things they came to resent about each other (for Amy, Nick's inattention; for Nick, Amy's impossibly high standards) were also things they loved about each other that turned them into better people - for Amy, Nick allowed her to relax, and Amy pushed Nick to be the best version of himself and provided him with an intellectual challenge.
  • The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen features a young fir tree wishing that it could be as big as the other fir trees of the forest, or at the very least be cut down to make something as valuable as a ship's mast. However, when it finds that other small fir trees are being cut down for Christmas, the little tree thinks being ornamented and treasured throughout the happiest time of the year sounds even better, and rejoices when it becomes a family's Christmas tree... only to end up being discarded in the attic at the end of the festivities, where it remains until spring arrives, whereupon it's unceremoniously dragged outside, sneered at, cut to pieces and burned. In the end, all the tree can do is look back on its earlier days and wish that it had enjoyed them when it had the chance.
  • In the final flashback sequence of The Magician King, Julia finds herself participating in the Free Trader Beowulf Group's attempt to summon a goddess in order to attain ultimate truth and happiness. However, just as the ritual is on the verge of completion, she realizes that she doesn't actually want or need anything this final experiment could provide: she's already perfectly happy as a member of the FTB; she has friends who understand her, she has all the intellectual challenges she could ever want, and best of all she's studying magic as she always dreamed of doing... but by now, it's too late to protest. The ritual ends up summoning a monstrous Trickster God who slaughters most of Julia's friends, then grants her the knowledge that the group wanted - by brutally raping her and tearing her soul out. For good measure, though Julia is able to eventually recover from the trauma and eventually gain a new, happy life as a dryad, she makes it abundantly clear that the woman she was is gone forever and she can never regain the happiness she once knew.
  • Towards the end of Wings, after finally managing to get hold of the ancient Nome ship, Masklin briefly finds himself wishing that he was living in a hole in the ground again: despite all the effort he spent at the start of the trilogy struggling to escape it, he admits that even if the burrow was cold, wet and surrounded by dangers, he at least had Grimma and he didn't have to spend his days chasing goals he barely understood. In the end, he uses the ship to rescue Grimma and the rest of the quarry Nomes, allowing him to gain new happiness in a lifestyle among the stars.

     Live-Action TV 
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "The War Prayer", Londo Mollari relates something his father said when he has a Heel Realization and allows two young Centauri to get out of their arranged marriages. Season 5 of the series would explore this in depth: he gets to see the ghost of an old lover (recalling his happiness in the first season) and becomes Emperor but has a Puppeteer Parasite attached to him.
    Londo: Something my father said. He was... Old, very old at the time. I went into his room, and he was sitting, alone in the dark, crying. So I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "My shoes are too tight. But it doesn't matter, because I have forgotten how to dance." I never understood what that meant until now. My shoes are too tight, and I have forgotten how to dance.
  • One of the big themes of Mad Men is seeking happiness, so it makes sense that a few people would end up like this. Notably, Roger has spent decades cheating on his first (age-appropriate) wife Mona with women young enough to be his daughter(s). When he marries Jane (who is literally his daughter's age), he is miserable and realizes that he misses Mona. Although they don't get back together, he eventually ends up with Marie Calvet, who is also his own age and matches him.
  • In True Detective, Marty acknowledges this as a fact of life when he looks back on his time investigating the crime in the 1990s, in between the present day (where he and Maggie have split up due to his infidelity), and his daughter Audrey is a miserable Emo Teen rather than the cute kid she once was. However, it's also the Running Theme of the entire show, such as when Wayne looks back on his marriage to Amelia after her death and realizes how much he loved (and neglected) her.
    Marty: You know the good years when you're in them, or you just wait for them until you get ass cancer and realize that the good years came and went? Because there's a feeling you might notice it sometimes... this feeling like life has slipped through your fingers... like the future is behind you, like it's always been behind you. You know, I cleaned up, but maybe I didn't change. Not the way I needed to. Remember what I said about the detective's curse? The solution to my whole life was right under my nose. That woman. Those kids. And I was watching everything else. See, infidelity is one kind of sin, but my true failure was inattention. I understand that now.

     Video Games 
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day: While Conker's main goal is to get home, he also becomes obsessed with collecting as much money as he can on his travels. At the end of the game, he successfully collects one million dollars. Just as he begins to celebrate, the Panther King has Berri gunned down. Following the death of the Panther King, everybody decides to make Conker the new King with all the money in the world. However, Conker realizes he doesn't want any of it and wishes he could just be home with Berri, still saddened over losing her.
  • Fallout 4: in his memories, Conrad Kellogg notes that he honestly didn't realize just how happy he was with his wife and child - up until the enemies he'd made over the course of his career murdered both of them. As a result, he's left with nothing but his job as a mercenary to live for, ultimately setting him on a path that ended in him becoming the Institute's personal enforcer and the murderer of the Sole Survivor's spouse.
  • Far Cry 4: During the game's prologue in his palace, Pagan Min muses that this is the difference between men and women:
    Pagan: The last time I saw Ishwari was years ago. She told me she loved me. Women, they can do that. They can say they love you in the moment and mean it. Men on the other hand...no, men can only really love you in hindsight. When too much distance has built up...
  • Shovel Knight: In the King of Cards campaign, King Knight wants to become the king, so in the end, when the Enchantress presents him an option for his wishes to come true by making him the King of Pridemoor, he betrays his friends and accepts her offer. He finally gets what he wanted: he becomes king, has all the riches at his disposal, and has proven himself to be a very capable fighter. However, he realizes too late that it's cost him the full-hearted support of three kingdoms, his friendships, and even the love of his mother. At the end, he's ditched everything that made him happy all for the sake of the crown, and even then, he's become nothing more but a Puppet King for the Enchantress, despised by everyone.
  • During the final confrontation between Therese and Jeanette Voerman in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, the Fledgling has the option of asking if there was never a time when the sisters weren't at each others' throats. The two hesitantly explain that when they were young, their father was convinced that they would only get hurt if they left the house and forced them to stay indoors - where they simply imagined worlds of their own. Back in the present, the two of them regretfully muse that they were so happy ruling those worlds together before they grew apart. It's ultimately this realization that prompts Therese and Jeanette to finally mend their bridges and take over Santa Monica together.

     Western Animation 
  • Futurama: Played for Laughs in "Godfellas". Following the Space Pirates attack on the Planet Express Ship, the pirate captain has an epiphany and states, "Too late I realize my children are my only real treasures", right before his ship explodes.

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