Want Happiness? Science Says You Should Stop Looking for It

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: Many people are so focused on trying to find happiness.
The Science: By chasing happiness, you actually often chase it away…
The Solution: 4 science-based secrets to finding (rather than losing) happiness

“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…”– Thoreau

As we muddle through our days, the quest for happiness looms large. In the U.S., citizens are granted three inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the kingdom of Bhutan, there’s a national index to measure happiness. But what if searching for happiness actually prevents us from finding it? There’s reason to believe that the quest for happiness might be a recipe for misery.

In a series of new studies led by the psychologist Iris Mauss, the more value people placed on happiness, the less happy they became. I saw it happen to Tom, a savant who speaks half a dozen languages, from Chinese to Welsh. In college, Tom declared a major in computer science, but found it dissatisfying. He became obsessed with happiness, longing for a career and a culture that would provide the perfect match for his interests and values. Within two years of graduating from college, he had bounced from working at the United Nations to an Internet startup in New York, applied for jobs as a supermarket manager, consultant and venture capitalist, and considered moving to Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Colombia, or Canada.

These careers and countries didn’t fulfill him. After another year, he was doing standup comedy, contemplating a move to London to pursue an advanced degree in education, philosophy of science, management, or psychology. But none of these paths made him happy. Dissatisfied with his own lack of progress toward happiness, he created an online tool to help people develop more productive habits. That wasn’t satisfying either, so he moved to Beijing. He lasted two years there, but didn’t find the right cultural fit, so he moved to Germany and considered starting a college dorm for adults and a bar for nerds. In the next two years, he was off to Montreal and Pittsburgh, then back to Germany working on a website to help couples spend more quality time together. Still not happy, he abandoned that plan and returned to Beijing to sell office furniture. One year and two more moves across two continents later, he admitted to his friends, “I’m harder to find than Carmen San Diego.”

Tom made four mistakes that are all too common on the road to happiness. The first blunder was in trying to figure out if he was happy. When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and contentment. To find out if we’re making progress, we need to compare our past happiness to our current happiness. This creates a problem: the moment we make that comparison, we shift from an experiencing mode to an evaluating mode. Consider several decades of research by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity. Think of being engrossed in a Harry Potter book, playing a sport you love, or catching up with a good friend you haven’t seen in years. You’re in the zone: you’re so immersed in the task that you lose track of time and the outside world.

4 Secrets to Finding (Rather than Losing) Happiness

1) By looking everywhere for happiness, Tom disrupted his ability to find flow.

Csikszentmihalyi finds that when people are in a flow state, they don’t report being happy, as they’re too busy concentrating on the activity or conversation. But afterward, looking back, they describe flow as the optimal emotional experience. By looking everywhere for happiness, Tom disrupted his ability to find flow. He was so busy assessing each new job and country that he never fully engaged in his projects and relationships. Instead, he became depressed and entered a vicious cycle documented by psychologists Katariina Salmela-Aro and Jari-Erik Nurmi: depression leads people to evaluate their daily projects as less enjoyable, and ruminating about why they’re not fun makes the depression worse.

2) The second error was in overestimating the impact of life circumstances on happiness.

As psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of positive life events. We think a great roommate or a major promotion will make us happier, overlooking the fact that we’ll adapt to the new circumstances. For example, in a classic study, winning the lottery didn’t appear to yield lasting gains in happiness. Each time Tom moved to a new job and country, he was initially excited to be running on a new treadmill, but within a matter of months, the reality of the daily grind set in: he was still running on a treadmill.

3) The third misstep was in pursuing happiness alone.

Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it’s only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and causes depression. In one study, Mauss and colleagues demonstrated that the greater the value people placed on happiness, the more lonely they felt every day for the next two weeks. In another experiment, they randomly assigned people to value happiness, and found that it backfired: these people reported feeling lonelier and also had a progesterone drop in their saliva, a hormonal response linked to loneliness. As Tom changed jobs and countries alone, he left behind the people who made him happy.

4) The final mistake was in looking for intense happiness.

When we want to be happy, we look for strong positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, and excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this isn’t the best path to happiness. Research led by the psychologist Ed Diener reveals that happiness is driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions. When we aim for intense positive emotions, we evaluate our experiences against a higher standard, which makes it easier to be disappointed. Indeed, Mauss and her colleagues found that when people were explicitly searching for happiness, they experienced less joy in watching a figure skater win a gold medal. They were disappointed that the event wasn’t even more jubilating. And even if they themselves had won the gold medal, it probably wouldn’t have helped. Studies indicate that an intense positive experience leads us to frame ordinary experiences as less positive. Once you’ve landed a gold medal or won the lottery, it’s hard to take pleasure in finding a great parking spot or winning a video game. Tom was looking so hard for the perfect job and the ideal country that he failed to appreciate an interesting task and a great restaurant.

Today, for the first time in more than a decade, Tom reports being — and appears to be — happy. Instead of pursuing happiness alone, he fell in love and got married. Rather than evaluating his happiness daily and hunting for his dream job, he’s finding flow and experiencing daily satisfaction in helping his wife set up a company. He’s no longer bouncing around from one continent to another, following the advice of psychologists Ken Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky: “Change your actions, not your circumstances.”

In Obliquity, John Kay argues that the best things in life can only be pursued indirectly. I believe this is true for happiness: if you truly want to experience joy or meaning, you need to shift your attention away from joy or meaning, and toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as byproducts. As the great philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote, “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

For more on happiness, see my new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

This article originally appeared at LinkedIn.


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Adam Grant
Adam Grant is Wharton’s youngest full professor and top-rated teacher. He has been recognized as one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors and one of Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite social science writers. He is the author of Give and Take, a New York Times bestseller translated into two dozen languages and named one of 2013’s best books by Amazon, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He has been profiled on the Today Show and in the New York Times magazine cover story, "Is giving the secret to getting ahead?” He is a former record-setting advertising director and junior Olympic springboard diver.
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  • Thomas Juli says:

    This is an excellent and very important article. Excellent, because it reveals some truths about happiness, in our daily lives as opposed to our dreams and visions. Important, because it motivates to BE.
    In one of my present projects we hold a daily stand up with our team. It follows the outline of typical standup meeting. That is, we share what we accomplished the previous day, what we plan to achieve today and if there are any obstacles we need help with. Then we add one additional question: ‘What will make you happy today?’ We capture our individual answers on sticky notes and post them on our our whiteboard for review the next day.
    Asking the question ‘What will make you happy today?’ brings in a human and personal element to our business project – and it is fun to talk about happiness early in the morning.
    However, after having read the article above I am not sure about the ‘happiness’ question anymore. Why? Well, most of our responses deal with activities we do after work in our private lives. This is fine. But, it takes away our focus from what we are doing during the day.
    Starting tomorrow, I think we’ll modify our ‘happiness’ question. The question will be more like ‘what makes us happy at work?’ or ‘why are we happy today?’ – I’ll keep you posted if and how this will have made a difference or not.

  • Thomas Juli says:

    following up my past comment the question was if the modified ‘happiness’ question – ‘what makes us happy at work?’ or ‘why are we happy today?’ – has made a difference. The answer is, yes. It helped us to gain a better focus on our work and being happy at the same time. In other words, we were happy, hence were more focused and consequently more productive. A win-win-win outcome. :-)

  • Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article.
    Thank you for supplying these details.

  • Rachael Holmes says:

    Thank you for writing this article!
    One thing I noticed, though, was that the article is about secrets to ‘finding’ happiness, yet the wording is focused on what to avoid/stop doing rather than what to do. Just a thought.
    Thanks again!

  • The information is very useful and useful, awaited your next article

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