Can seeking happiness make you unhappy?


Happiness is a key ingredient of well-being. It is thus reasonable to expect that valuing happiness will have beneficial outcomes. We argue that this may not always be the case. Instead, valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed. This should apply particularly in positive situations, in which people have every reason to be happy. Two studies support this hypothesis. In Study 1, female participants who valued happiness more (vs. less) reported lower happiness when under conditions of low, but not high, life stress. In Study 2, compared to a control group, female participants who were experimentally induced to value happiness reacted less positively to a happy, but not a sad, emotion induction. This effect was mediated by participants’ disappointment at their own feelings. Paradoxically, therefore, valuing happiness may lead people to be less happy just when happiness is within reach.

Source: “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness.” from Emotion, Vol 11(4), Aug 2011, 807-815

So does this mean we should forget everything about trying to be happier? Not at all. But don’t be neurotic about it. Change your lifestyle and habits in ways that are known to produce happiness in others (as Daniel Gilbert points out — what works for others is probably more reliable than what your unreliable memory thinks will work for you) but don’t be running around with a happiness barometer over your head all day.

Do the work consistently but evaluate the results infrequently.

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