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The Problem with Happiness

Can trying to be happy interfere with creating happiness?

Asked what is the fundamental objective of life, the vast majority of people answer quickly and definitively- happiness. Their lives are organized around trying to be happy. Sounds good, right? Sounds even better when you read about the scientific benefits linked to happiness.Compared to less happy people...

Happy people have stronger, more intimate friendships.
Happy people are more likely to be in satisfying romantic relationships.
Happy people have better immunological functioning. Stab a happy person with an intravenous needle containing an infectious virus (if thats the type of person you are) and they are less likely to get sick.
Happy people sleep better.
Happy people are more creative.
Happy people spend more time helping other people (altruism, generosity).
Happy people are viewed positively by other people whether it is likability, social skills, intelligence, physical attractiveness, confidence, or samurai swordsmanship.
Happy people extract more pleasure and meaning when working, socializing, or playing.

These findings are from cross-sectional, experimental, observational, longitudinal and experience-sampling studies. Thus, we can be confident that the findings are not flukes. And yes, many of these relationships go both ways. For instance, the quantity and quality of sleep affects our happiness and loneliness sucks the marrow out of living. But for now, lets just focus on a central point. Happiness is not just a sign that things are going well, the experience of happiness helps produce positive outcomes.

But there is a not-so-hidden problem. The United States is obsessed with happiness (same goes for a number of other countries in the world). There are cultural pressures to be happy. Go on and look at how many books have happiness in the title. Go on google and plug in "happiness coaching." Look at how many people are waiting by their phone for you to cough up cash to learn to be happier. There are even university degrees that can teach you to teach people to be happier (for only $40,000+ per year)! (Note: there is more money to be made training trainers than being a happiness trainer). Has anyone considered what this pressure to be happy does to people?

Thankfully, a few scientists started to study this phenomena. What they found is that as people place more importance on being happy, they become more unhappy and depressed. The pressure to be happy makes people less happy. Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.

In one study, people were asked a number of questions about how much they value happiness and how much they believe it is important to work toward being happy. When in the midst of great stress, people were generally unhappy. For everyone else, the greater emphasis put on happiness, the least successful they were at obtaining it. It didn't matter how happiness was defined. People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about their life, and 75% more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere. And in case, you are shaking your head at this narrow definition of happiness, take note that people that valued happiness the most also reported ~15% less psychological well-being. Psychological well-being is a smorgasbord of what is good in life including self-esteem, positive relations with other people, meaning and purpose in life, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of competence in tackling life's challenges. In sum, the more you value happiness, try to be happy, organize your life around trying to become happy, the less happy you end up.

But don't trust a single study. Consider a second study where people read a fake newspaper article about the value of happiness. The fake article emphasized the science of happiness. Very similar to the benefits I extolled earlier. Science shows that people achieving the greatest amount of happiness can experience long-term benefits in their relationships, professional success, and overall health and well-being.

Half of the people in the study read this fake article on the "science of happiness" and the other half read the same article except terms related to happiness were replaced with "making accurate judgments." When pushed to view happiness as fundamentally important, something of profound value, how does this affect one's ability to be happy? The researchers tested this by asking people to watch a funny movie clip after reading the newspaper. When given information about the benefits of being happy, people enjoyed the movie less. That is, people primed to value happiness became less (not more) appreciative of positive events in their immediate environment.

The pressure to be happy is everywhere. Well-meaning scientists, writers, therapists, consultants, and media personalities ramp up the importance of being happy and thus, the value of being a happy person. Often it is implicit, not explicit.

Perhaps this research provides insight on why nobody buys just one happiness book. Perhaps this research provides insight on why the number of people on psychotropic medication continues to skyrocket. Perhaps this research can help us reconsider what we are living for.

Think about what you want written on your tombstone.
Here lies Todd Kashdan, a man who put every ounce of effort into being a happy person.
Here lies Todd Kashdan, a man who strived to be a good friend, a good husband, a good father, while trying to make the world a slightly better place.

I choose the latter. Be in the present moment, be open and curious, and devote your life to what matters. Do this and you are liable to catch happiness along the way (or you might not). There are better things to live for than the pursuit of a perfect mix of thoughts and feelings inside our brain.

For more about the research in this article, check out:

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (in press). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion

and if you need more convincing, here's another study:

For greater in-depth treatment on this topic, see chapter 6 by Drs. Maya Tamir and James Gross in my upcoming book: Designing the Future of Positive Psychology.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena

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