Why the pursuit of happiness can make us miserable

by Barbara R. Abercrombie
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Most people want to be happy. “The pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined as a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that whatever road takes you to “happy” — whether it’s daily morning walks, reading with the kids, eating and drinking with friends, or a simple five minutes of silence — is a road you are entitled to.

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Even before COVID-19 disrupted everything, happiness levels had fallen, indicators suggested. For example, self-reported happiness in the U.S. has declined since the 1990s, according to the 2019 General Social Survey, which collects data on how Americans feel about a range of topics. But amid a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, rampant unemployment, and a general lingering atmosphere of uncertainty, many are undoubtedly finding it harder than ever to grasp even the glimmer of happiness in an already elusive state.

Maybe even more now, it’s easy to call in – perhaps too much – to ask if you’re happy, why you aren’t, and how you could be.

“It almost feels a bit like a burden,” said Iris Mauss, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Everyone, since we can pursue happiness – there is the baggage that comes with it. Therefore, we are responsible for our happiness and for making that possible.”

Somewhere in there lies a tipping point. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But a body of research also shows that pursuing happiness, whatever that means to you, might make you miserable.

What is even happiness?

Going back at least as far as the Greeks, defining happiness was a matter of a million dollars.

Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC-370 BC)

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thought luck had to do with a ‘man’s mood’. Plato thought it was the ‘enjoyment of what is good and beautiful’, while Aristotle thought it had to do with living by virtue.

More recently, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “happiness isn’t a goal; it’s a byproduct.”

And simply put, 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 over time as people got more mastered of their environment and had more say in their circumstances,” said 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 we’re probably more in control of.”

“If… our goal is always to feel happy, we’ve set ourselves up for failure from the start.”

Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist, Center for Healthy Minds

For researchers, happiness falls into two categories: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, explains Brock Bastain, a social psychologist at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, refers to pleasure and the concept that the more fun we have, the happier we are. Eudaimonic is a broader idea of ​​happiness or well-being. It is the idea 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, happiness promotes social bonds that form communities, drive people toward their goals, and even make them more creative. For others, it’s uncertain whether emotions result from some evolutionary mechanism or a psychological construct, said Maya Tamir, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Lucky for the luck

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


But as Mauss explains, there is a point where too much value is placed on happiness, which creates an expectation that is too high. The unfulfilled expectation leads to disappointment.

“If… our goal is always to feel happy, we’ve set ourselves up for failure from the start,” says Kesebir.

If this chain were applied to a goal, such as making more money or getting a better grade on a test, disappointment could be a motivator. But being happy is not a concrete, objective goal like achieving a 10. There is much more room for not meeting expectations.

Consider the impact advertising can have on how happy people think they feel. The ads suggest that a new car with a quiet interior, or a phone with the latest features, will open up a happy life with smiling friends and fluffy dogs. Or the carefully curated social media posts of happy friends on sunny beaches make it seem like life should always be a vacation.

Researchers from the University of Warwick looked at data from 27 countries in Europe on life satisfaction

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from 1980 to 2011, as well as ad spending, and found that when ad spending rose in a country, so did dissatisfaction within a year or two.

While the findings were correlated, researcher Andrew Oswald told the Harvard Business Review in 2019, “Exposing people to a lot of advertising raises their aspirations — and makes them feel like their own lives, achievements, possessions, and experiences are inadequate.”

Maybe a new car makes you happy? Probably not.

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Mauss believes that when people are too determined about their happiness, they can often neglect relationships with others. Maybe chasing that big promotion at work will earn you a new swimming pool, but it can also come at the expense of family time. Not only that, but the more people deliberately focus on something, such as asking about their happiness, the more at risk they are in a situation where the kettle isn’t boiling.

“If we question and judge our experiences, that can interfere with being truly happy too,” she says. “The happiest experiences we have are the ones, in hindsight, when we didn’t even think about it.”

Research suggests that those who accept their emotions, even if those emotions are negative, generally feel happier, Tamir says. For some, negative emotions can feel like a failure and even create fear and avoidance of misfortune, when in reality, it’s just part of being human.

In a paper co-authored by Mauss in 2017, researchers found that “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may achieve better psychological health” because they had fewer negative emotions in response to stressors.

“If you don’t feel happy enough in the West, you say to yourself, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with me,’ and then you end up feeling worse,” Tamir says.

Feeling bad is normal and inevitable. Feeling bad about feeling bad is where things can get tricky.

A healthy activity

All this is not to say that happiness, or wanting to be happy, is bad or will eventually lead to unhappiness.

Research conducted in 2015 by Mauss, Tamir, and others suggests that the desire for happiness was universal. People in the U.S. are no more or less focused on achieving satisfaction than people in Japan, for example. But they pursue happiness differently.

In western countries, the pursuit is more individualistic. The American definition of happiness has less to do with relationships, spending time with friends and family, or helping others. They are less friendly in their pursuit of happiness, Mauss says. They encounter a paradox: finding disappointment in the pursuit of happiness.

Bastain says that in societies that value individualism more, the pursuit of happiness has become more important in people’s lives.

“Don’t make happiness itself a goal.”

Brock Bastain, Social Psychologist, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences

†[The] The idea that we are responsible for our well-being and happiness, and therefore our happiness and well-being is an indicator of our success, has become prominent,” he says.

However, Japanese and Taiwanese participants took a different approach.

“They could be as obsessed with happiness as they wanted, presumably because they saw happiness as a social thing,” she says.

In that way, research suggests that focusing on relationships, hobbies, and goals produces happiness as a byproduct.

“If I focus on things in life that I know are likely to lead to happiness, but I don’t make happiness itself a goal — concentrating on connecting with others, making a good contribution to society, contributing to the lives of other people, engage in meaningful pursuits, those things will bring happiness,” Bastain says.

Read on to learn more about what science is teaching us about happiness and how to boost your happiness hormones.

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