Why science says the pursuit of happiness has a dark side

Wanting to be happy too hard could make us less happy in the long run.Getty Images

As counterintuitive as it might sound, chasing happiness so closely could be making us miserable.

by Erin Carson

It’s a reasonable guess that most people want to be happy. “The pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined as a basic right in the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that whatever road gets you to “happy” — whether it’s daily morning runs, reading with the kids, dinner and drinks with friends or a simple five minutes of silence — is a road you’re entitled to take. 

But in the midst of a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, rampant unemployment and a general lingering air of uncertainty, many no doubt find it harder than ever to grasp even glimmers of happiness, an already elusive state. Even before COVID-19 disrupted everything, levels of happiness had been dropping, indicators suggested. Self-reported happiness in the US, for example, has been declining since the 1990s, according to 2019’s General Social Survey, which gathers data on how Americans feel about a range of topics. 

Perhaps more so now, it’s easy to get dialed in — maybe too dialed in — to questions of whether you’re happy, why you’re not and how you could be. 

“It almost feels a little bit like a burden,” says Iris Mauss, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Each person, as we’re able to pursue happiness — there’s the baggage associated with that. We’re also then responsible for our own happiness and making that happen.”

Somewhere in there lies a tipping point. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But a body of research also shows that chasing happiness, whatever that means to you, might actually be making you miserable. 

What even is happiness?

Going at least as far back as the Greeks, defining happiness has been something of a million-dollar question. 

Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC–370 BC) thought happiness had to do with a “man’s cast of mind.” Plato thought it was the “enjoyment of what is good and beautiful,” while Aristotle thought it had to do with living in accordance with virtue.

More recently, Eleanor Roosevelt said “happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct.”

And putting it simply, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz said happiness is a warm puppy.

In the past, “people associated happiness more with what fate bestows on you, and that changed across time as people mastered their environments more and had more say in their circumstances,” says Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Especially in the West, in more developed countries, we see happiness as something that is probably more under our control.””If … our goal is to feel happy all the time, we have set ourselves up for failure from the outset.”Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist, Center for Healthy Minds

For researchers, happiness breaks down into two categories: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, explains Brock Bastain, social psychologist at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, refers to pleasure and the concept that the more pleasure we have, the happier we are. Eudaimonic is a broader idea of happiness, or well being. It’s the notion that happiness is experienced through social connections, or the meaningful pursuit of goals or activities. 

Scientists don’t even agree on the function of happiness. For some of them, happiness promotes social bonds that build communities, and drives people toward their goals and even makes them more creative. For others, it’s uncertain whether emotions as a whole are the result of some evolutionary mechanism or are a psychological construct, says Maya Tamir, professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Happiness for the sake of happiness

The idea that longing for happiness could make you unhappy sounds counterintuitive. 

But as Mauss explains, there’s a point at which placing too much value on being happy creates an expectation that’s too high. The unmet expectation leads to disappointment. 

“If … our goal is to feel happy all the time, we have set ourselves up for failure from the outset,” says Kesebir.

If this chain were applied to a goal, like making more money or getting a better grade on a test, the disappointment could serve as a motivator. But being happy isn’t a concrete, objective goal like getting an A. There’s a lot more room to fall short of the expectation…



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