A crazily affluent friend takes delivery of a Burberry handbag for which there has allegedly been a three-month waiting list. The price is roughly the same as the average British worker's monthly salary.

Meanwhile, a coaching client gets the job of his dreams after manoeuvring for it for two years.

What happens? The friend reports that after two days of hungrily stroking the bag and displaying it to people, most of whom have no clue what they are looking at, she feels oddly disenchanted and is considering returning it. The coaching client rings me six months later to say that after a few days of euphoric triumph and a blisteringly enjoyable start to the job, he feels strangely empty - and I hear the hollowness in his voice.

Popular books on happiness make the same points but about societies. Oliver James's book Affluenza argues we judge each other and ourselves by how we look, what we wear and what we earn without becoming any happier. Many "happiness economists" have claimed the wealthiest nations are no happier than the poorest.

Back at the individual level, I am alert to looming signs of trouble in clients who package all their hopes into one future achievement. Typically this client will imply that if only they could get that promotion or pay increase, or pass an exam, all their problems would be solved. Invariably such clients discover that not only has success brought problems of its own, but that also all their other problems remain the same: the mouthy teenage children, the less than happy marriage, the worries about ageing parents. And there is always someone who earns more, looks more glamorous and has more influence.

It often seems the very qualities that give people their driving ambition are the ones that prevent them enjoying success. I have heard many such clients describe the sour sense of disappointment in their current role and, even worse, a feeling that all their past achievements are equally worthless. There was general astonishment, though no experienced coach would have registered surprise, when Lord Stevenson, chair of HBOS and one of the most successful and prominent business leaders in the world, confessed in October 2007 to the bleakness that descended on him in the middle of obvious success, working but getting no pleasure from it.

Although I have no formal religious beliefs myself, I am struck by the wisdom of so many great religions which emphasise the importance of giving more and expecting less, of living in the moment rather than pinning hopes on the future, and of living simply and keeping your mind in neutral. All also say that happiness cannot be pursued as an end in itself.

No one has written more movingly and simply about this than Viktor Frankl in his wonderful book Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl survived the holocaust and founded a successful school of psychotherapy. His central argument is that humans must have some purpose greater than mere self-promotion: "Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself."