4 Reasons to Stop Pursuing Happiness & What To Do Instead

Photo by Sarah Schwab
Photo by Sarah Schwab
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The Challenge: In modern western culture, there is a strong pressure to strive for happiness.
The Science: While being happy might be good, striving to be happy is often counterproductive.
The Solution: Here’s what you can do to cultivate long-lasting well-being.
In a recent conference on Positive Psychology, Pharrell Williams’ song Happy seemed to be everywhere. He asked us to “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” I didn’t clap.

There are certainly many benefits to being happy. Positive emotions broaden our thinking and imagination. Shared positive emotions help us to connect with other people. Being happy might be good for our health too. Furthermore – and this is quite self-evident – it feels good to be happy. But while being happy can be a good thing, pursuing happiness might actually be bad for us. As professor Adam Grant noted in a recent post:

“There’s reason to believe that the quest for happiness might be a recipe for misery.”

In recent decades, we Western people have become more and more obsessed with happiness. Being happy has become a cultural norm and a self-evident aim of life. Happiness has become the holy cow of our age, and we are willing to make many sacrifices to please this smiling idol of worship.

But don’t be fooled by the false prophets. Don’t sacrifice the good things in life in the vain hope of becoming happier. Research shows that there are at least four reasons why pursuing happiness might be harmful for you.

1. People pursue happiness in all the wrong places

First of all, pursuit of happiness is usually not working. Research shows that people who put a high value on happiness are actually on average less happy than people less obsessed with being happy.

One of the main reasons that pursuit of happiness is not working is that we look for happiness in all the wrong places. We strive for a bigger house, bigger car, latest electronic gimmicks and other materialistic possessions. Professor Jean Twenge, an expert on generational differences, has been alarmed by the ongoing rise of materialism: “Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them.”

If you are like those 62 % of high school students who think that it is important to have a lot of money, then I hate to break this to you: You are not heading for happiness with that goal. Many studies have shown that people pursuing the infamous trio of money, fame and image as their life goals are less happy than the ones pursuing more intrinsically valued goals (more of them later).

In terms of your own happiness, there are better and worse goals. And money, fame and image are definitely the worse ones. Unfortunately, our culture, media and advertising industry seem to do everything they can to make sure that you only strive for these material goals in life. Freedom from the chains of happy-happy starts with choosing your own goals.

2. Pursuing happiness actually can make you less happy

If you would watch a short film clip where a popular female figure skater wins a gold medal, would that make you feel happy? Think about it: The crowd goes wild and the skater herself enthusiastically celebrates with her coach. The probable answer is yes, because on average, this kind of film clip really makes people feel more positive emotions. But here is the twist: Before researchers showed this film to an audience, half of the participants were asked to read a short note that stated that “happiness not only feels good, it also carries important benefits: the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular.”

So evil! The researchers in effect made people value happiness more to see how this affected their feelings after watching the film. It turned out that it did affect their feelings: Those people reading the above statement reported being less happy after watching the film than other people watching the same film. In other words, valuing happiness made them feel less happy. The reason: They reported being disappointed with their own feelings. Perhaps the film clip made them smile a bit, but they would have wanted to derive even more happiness from it, and this made them frustrated.

This is why the western obsession with happiness is so dangerous. It can make us disappointed with our own feelings. We want to be happy, because our culture tells us that we should be happy. This desire for happiness makes us enjoy less whatever positive feelings we have.

Remember: Those people telling you that you ought to be happy are in effect making you less happy.

3. You ignore other people and become more lonely

Can pursuit of happiness make you lonely? Yes, says one research study that found that the more people value happiness, the lonelier they felt on a daily basis. Furthermore, when people were manipulated to value happiness (by reading the same note as above), they reported feeling more lonely than another group. This shows that it is the valuing of happiness that leads to loneliness and not the other way around. So while being happy can be good for building social connections, wanting to be happy can actually have the opposite effect.

Why does pursuit of happiness lead to feelings of loneliness? It might be because our Western notion of happiness is so self-centered that it leads us to focus too much on ourselves at the price of ignoring those close to us. Research actually shows that happy people are more selfish than sad people. When students were given ten raffle tickets to distribute between themselves and another student, the happier ones kept more tickets for themselves. So it seems that when people are not blinded by their own happiness, they are more sensitive to the needs of other people.

I once saw a man walk on the street with a t-shirt stating ‘I am happy today, so shut up and leave me alone’. It pretty much summarizes what is so damaging about the way we think about happiness. By exclusively focusing on ourselves, we lose touch with other people. We end up ‘bowling alone’, as Robert Putnam summarized the modern American condition in his best-selling book. Sacrificing friendships on the altar of happiness might be the most horrible consequence of modern worshiping of happiness.

4. Focusing on happiness is especially destructive for those who are not happy

Unfortunately, there’s more. In one study, people were asked to report their happiness 6 times every day for two weeks. The idea was to see what this kind of intensive focus on happiness does for people’s happiness. It turned out that for normally happy people it didn’t affect their reported levels of happiness. However, some participants reported at the start of the study that they had some degree of depressive symptoms. For this group, the constant reporting of their emotional state proved to be detrimental: The more often they had to report their happiness, the less happy they became.

Life is complex: Some events make you feel happy; some events make you feel sad. And that’s how it should be. Remember that we wouldn’t have sad feelings if they wouldn’t carry some adaptive function in life. So there is a time and place for all feelings, both good and bad.  Accordingly, research shows that aiming to feel happy in inappropriate situations – like when confronting a partner who cheated you – actually makes us feel less happy. In this kind of situations, it is more reasonable to feel anger than happiness. Instead of striving to be happy, no matter what, we should allow ourselves to feel those emotions that fit the specific situation.

It is not always easy to let go of happiness because our culture is full of messages that remind us that we should be happy. Open the TV – especially during commercials – and you see only happy, healthy, beautiful people telling you that you also should be happier. This is bad for us all, but it can be especially undermining for those of us who struggle. When we feel blue, the worst thing that can happen is that someone comes to tell us: “You should not be unhappy”. This doubles our burden: Not only are we unhappy, we also feel guilty for feeling that way. This is horrible, especially because the path towards suicide often starts with a person falling short of standards and thinking that it is their own fault. The last thing a severely depressed person needs is guilt about not living up to the standards of happiness that our society has set for its members.

Fighting against one’s feelings is always a losing battle. It is better to learn to accept life as it is. You need to accept that sometimes sad things happen. In these situations it is best to go through the sad feelings rather than fight against them. Good movies are built on adversaries. A movie without any sadness and struggle would be a very boring movie indeed. Same principle applies to life. Your life story becomes richer when it includes elements from all spectrums of life. So when you are happy, savor the moment. When you are sad – savor the moment. Both of these emotions are a vital part of the uniquely unfolding story that is your life.

Instead of chasing happiness, do meaningful things

In his book Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly, economist John Kay makes the case that many goals in life, business, politics and sports are not achieved with exclusive focus on the goal itself, but rather through focusing on something else. Happiness is clearly one of these goals. The more you value it, the more desperately you pursue it, the more it eludes you.

So if you want to be happy, stop striving for it.

But don’t worry; instead of running in the modern treadmill of empty happiness, there are certain other things that can be a source of more sustainable happiness. As noted in my previous post, sustainable happiness comes to those who aim to be free and autonomous, and who are able to exercise their competences. Feeling that one belongs and is contributing to the wider community are also essential for sense of meaningfulness. Instead of striving to be happy, strive to do things that are meaningful to you and that make a meaningful contribution to the wider society. That way, you’ll become happy as a side-product.

John Lennon famously sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Quite nice, but let’s make it a bit better. Let’s modify it into a recipe for sustainable happiness:

Happiness is what happens to you while you’re busy making meaningful things.

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Frank Martela
Frank Martela, PhD, is enthusiastic about exploring the ultimate factors of human motivation. His main research topics include willpower, intrinsic motivation, and meaning in life. He experiments with his own willpower through barefoot running – last year he ran his first two barefoot marathons. As regards meaning in life, he finds it by making himself meaningful for other people as a researcher, a spouse and a father. Frank has wide experience in lecturing about motivation and willpower for both academic and general audiences. His latest book, Willpower: The Owner’s Manual, distills the scientific knowledge about willpower into twelve easy and practical tools.
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