Did you know: seeking happiness can make people unhappy?

While we recognise that in general happiness is a crucial ingredient of well-being and health, happiness is not valued to the same extent by everyone. For some people it is a ‘nice to have’ while for others it is the stuff of life, a state to which they constantly aspire. Goal pursuit theory suggests that if we value something and actively pursue it we should experience more of it. So if we value happiness and pursue it, so we should experience more of it.


However, there is a sting in the tail. The more highly we value something, the higher the standards are likely to be against which we evaluate our achievement of it. So, for instance, if I value academic excellence and strive hard to achieve it, I’m not going to be very satisfied with just a ‘pass’ grade – it hasn’t met my standards of a great mark.


Importantly, while my disappointment with my mark doesn’t change my mark, if my goal is to achieve happiness, my disappointment with the level of happiness I am experiencing DOES affect my level of happiness. To be disappointed is incompatible in the moment with feeling happy. Of course, expectations are context specific: most people don’t expect to feel happy at a funeral, but might well expect to feel happy at a party. 


If I’m at a party and DON’T, as I expected I would, feel happy, then I am likely to feel disappointed. And the feeling disappointed will lower my happiness. If I had not had any expectations of feeling happy then I wouldn’t feel disappointed by not feeling happy and, paradoxically, might actually feel happier than the disappointed person!


In other words, by valuing happiness very highly, and making it a goal and measure of value, we product the very circumstances that raise the likelihood of disappointment and adversely affect our chances of achieving happiness: The pursuit of happiness may cause decreased happiness.


Considering all this, Mauss, Tamir, Anderson and Savino (2011) concluded ‘that valuing happiness is not necessarily linked to greater happiness. In fact, under certain conditions the opposite is true. Under conditions of low (but not high) life stress, the more people valued happiness, the lower were their hedonic balance [ratio of positive to negative emotional states], psychological well-being, and life satisfaction, and the higher their depressive symptoms.’


In short, an overly focused pursuit of happiness is unlikely to lead to greater happiness. We need to recognize that we experience all sorts of emotions and while happiness can be encouraged by the way we live our lives it can’t be produced to order: it is not a guaranteed outcome of any activity. 


I wonder if the reported huge increase of reported depression in the world is in any way related to this strange paradox. Have we somehow, with our twenty-first century interest in and emphasis on happiness, raised expectations about how much happiness people should feel, maybe even to the extent that all non-happy feelings are experienced as strong failure and disappointment? My mother used to say to me ‘I don’t mind what you do (as a career she meant) as long as you are happy.’ For her happiness was the goal and measure of success. Even then I struggled to understand the advice as I didn’t understand how to ‘be happy’ I didn’t know what made me happy. Finding that out has been a life-long journey.


My father, conversely, pointed out to me long before it became a poster slogan, ‘happiness is a journey not a destination’, or to paraphrase John Lennon ‘Happiness happens while you are concentrating on something else,’ or finally my own thoughts: happiness is a happy by-product of the life lived and the choices made. 


This article is based on the research and article byMauss, Tamir, Anderson and Savino (2011) Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, Vol 11, No. 4, 807-815