The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Does Wanting to Be Happy Undermine Happiness?

Sometimes, wanting joy hurts us.

We all want to be happier than we are. And from time to time, I imagine all of us have said something such as "I am going to try and be happier" to ourselves, or for those of us who are a bit more cynical "I am not going to be as miserable." But does pursuing happiness, making it a goal, actually impact our happiness?

A recent series of studies by Iris Mauss (psychologist, University of of Denver) and colleagues suggests that in certain cases, it can actually make people less happy, and interestingly, that this is especially the case when things are going pretty well. 

In Study 1, participants were recruited from the community (laundromats, etc) and were asked a variety of questions about their stress levels and their happiness. When stress levels were moderate, the more people valued happiness, the less happy they actually were. This was not the case for people who had a lower value placed on their happiness. This also was not the case when stress levels were high.

In sum, when things weren't so bad (low stress levels), valuing happiness was related to less happiness. If things were really bad, valuing happiness did not matter.

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In Study 2, participants read an essay talking about if happiness is important or an essay stating that it is not (they read one or the other) and then were assigned to watch either a happy video (people cheering a successful event) or a sad video (a couple is out dancing and the wife dies). Mood and happiness were then assessed using a range of explicit and implicit (automatic, less conscious) measures.

People that had read that happiness is important, relative to people who read that it is not, were less happy at the end of the study when viewing a positive, happy video. Valuing happiness did not make people more or less happy when the video was sad.

Put together, these studies suggest that in some cases at least, valuing happiness can undermine people's attempts at happiness. Specifically, this might be the case not when things are going bad, but when things are going fairly well and the person should not feel particularly bad.

 

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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