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Chasing Happiness May Leave You Unhappier than Ever

Research shows why the pursuit of happiness backfires.

Although the pursuit of happiness has been a topic of discussion since the Declaration of Independence, the suggestion that everyone should feel happy all the time seems to be emerging as a new phenomenon in pop-culture. Movies, books and music lyrics all send messages that say, “You deserve to be happy.” But, research shows that chasing happiness may actually make you feel worse.

The Happiness Paradox

Although there are countless books, websites, and speakers offering advice about how to achieve optimal levels of happiness, the exact path about how to get there remains a bit hazy. In fact, most people make incorrect assumptions about what will make them feel happy. These inaccurate predictions lead people down the wrong trail as they expect happiness will be found right around the next corner.

Sometimes people believe having children, getting a new job, or becoming self-employed will automatically equate to increased happiness. But often, these changes don’t result in the increased happiness that people expect. When attempts to increase happiness fail, it can leave people feeling unhappier than ever.

Take for example a person who thinks that more money will equal more happiness. If he already makes a decent salary, a small raise isn’t likely to help. In fact, $75,000 seems to be the benchmark for happiness, according to research from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. No matter how much over that mark people earn, they aren’t likely to experience increased happiness. So a person who works hard to earn a small raise might be sorely disappointed when that raise doesn’t deliver the expected boost in happiness and he may become even unhappier than before.

The Keys to Happiness

What can you do if you want to increase your happiness? Well, the one that most research studies do seem to agree on is that prosocial behavior increases happiness.While earning more money might not make you happy, giving it away could.

Acts of kindness alone won’t make you happy, however. Doing good deeds could backfire if you go about it the wrong way. The latest happiness research from Stanford University, the University of Houston, and Harvard Business School shows that to achieve an increase in happiness, people need to establish concrete, attainable goals aimed at helping other people. When these goals are accomplished, happiness increases for both the giver and the receiver.

Here are some examples of concrete and attainable prosocial goals:

  • Instead of saying you want to make someone happy, set out to make someone smile.
  • Rather than deciding that you will help the less fortunate, donate two bags of groceries to a food pantry every week.
  • Substitute the idea that you're going to change the world for working at a soup kitchen one day a month.

Creating attainable goals helps establish reasonable expectations for how much happiness you’ll experience when the goal is accomplished. Following through with your action steps to help other people can increase your overall life satisfaction and sense of happiness. Set out to make the world a better place one small step at a time and your happiness meter is also likely to climb.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success. Watch the video below to learn more.

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