How many books do you think there are on happiness?Over 12,982. (According to a “happiness” search on Goodreads, anyway.)
Happiness is even written into the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Philosophers love to philosophize about happiness: Aristotle wrote, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
And scientists too: check out The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
I think it’s safe to say that people are kind of obsessed with happiness. I kind of am too (it’s in my site’s tag line for goodness’ sake).
But new research is showing that the active pursuit of happiness may actually be making us more unhappy. Huh?
There’s a few reasons that this can be the case.
- Thinking about happiness disrupts your flow
Flow is being so absorbed in an activity that you’re not thinking about other things. Think about the last time you got sucked into a great book or movie, played a game against a friend, worked on a painting, whatever you like to do. When you’re doing that activity, you’re usually not thinking about other stuff. You’re just enjoying it.
But if we’re so focused on happiness as the end goal, sometimes we start thinking “am I happy? Am I enjoying this enough?”. And this disrupts our flow. Instead of just enjoying yourself, you’re wondering if the activity is actually making you happy enough.
Plus flow is really important to our overall happiness. In fact, research on flow suggests that many people identify times of flow as the optimal emotional experience.
Disrupting this flow by constantly monitoring your emotions not only keeps you from this optimal emotional experience, but many people’s peak performance and creativity occurs during times of flow. So basically you can be negatively impacting your happiness and performance.
2. Expectations of happiness can lead to disappointment
So it turns out that the more you value and expect happiness, the more likely you are to feel disappointed.
When was the last time New Year’s Eve actually lived up to its expectations? Or a college spring break? So often these events that are so hyped up end up seeming just mediocre. This same phenomenon can happen in daily life too.
In one study, female participants were given either a (fake) newspaper article on the benefits of happiness or the benefits of “making accurate judgements”, and then they watched a short video of a happy event – a figure skater winning a gold medal and the celebration after. The women who had been given the article on the benefits of happiness were less happy after watching the clip than the group who read about making accurate judgements.
When you value happiness and are placed in a situation which should make you happy, you are often disappointed by not feeling even happier, which ends up mitigating any happy feelings you actually were having.
There are other studies, too, that show similar effects. Basically, it all suggests that over valuing happiness, especially for any one moment or event, can totally backfire. Happiness is more about overall satisfaction with life, not just a feeling in any one moment. Getting too caught up in “experiencing happiness” at every moment can end up being disappointing.
3. The pursuit of happiness is making you self-centered
We’ve all heard that helping others makes you happier. But pursuing happiness for its own sake is all about yourself. It’s inherently self-centered.
Relentlessly pursuing happiness can also cause people to neglect or damage relationships in their own self-interest, which clearly can backfire.
Another study even showed that the more people valued happiness, the lonelier they felt.
But guess what? This may actually be unique to Western culture, and the United States in particular according to another study on cultural differences on pursuing happiness. The U.S. is what they call an “individualistic” culture, as opposed to a “collectivist” Eastern culture.
A person who is motivated to pursue happiness in East Asia may find it more appropriate and be more encouraged by their culture to seek happiness through social engagement… indeed, positive social connection is one of the few necessary predictors of well-being
So if you’re from the United States are you destined to be lonely?
No. That’s ridiculous.
But we can learn from other cultures and work on cultivating community (#tribe), close relationships with friends and family, and reaching out to help those in need.
Because I know you all care about them.
But really, my site is all about being happier! (And healthier.) So what does this mean for me and my site?
My big takeaway from this new research is that we need to get smarter about happiness. You have to go about finding happiness the right way, or you may end up worse off than when you started.
It’s like the old adage: “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”. Money isn’t the problem – you’ve just got to be smarter with it. Same thing with happiness.
Because honestly, I still want to be happier. I do value it. And I know that there are concrete things I can do to increase my happiness. So yeah, I’m going to do those. But I may try to stop thinking about it all the time.
Here are the things I’m personally going to focus on after reading these studies:
- Get into flow – for me, a big part of this is disengaging from technology. I’m talking fewer windows up in my browser, staying off Instagram when I’m with other people or doing another activity, and focusing intently on what’s around me. (Check out my post on Mindfulness versus Meditation to help learn to be present!)
- Stop worrying about and monitoring my happiness from moment to moment. Don’t get trapped into thinking “Am I enjoying this enough?”. Remember #1 and get into “flow”.
- Focus more on other people. Sometimes I’m good at this and sometimes I get sucked into my own world. Relationships are the #1 predictor of happiness and health, so it’s the best place you can put your time and energy.
New research is showing that the active pursuit of happiness and valuing happiness can actually make people more unhappy. This is because:
- It can disrupt your flow
- High expectations can lead to disappointment
- It makes you self centered
But it’s not all bad news – we don’t need to stop thinking about happiness or striving to be happier. We just need to be smarter about it. Stay engaged in the moment, stop worrying and monitoring happiness, and focus more on others.
What do you think about these new findings? Have you ever found yourself caught in a trap of worrying about being happy enough? Let me know in the comments!