Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

Jonathan Rottenberg Ph.D.

Charting the Depths

The Pitfalls of Seeking Happiness

With happiness, be careful what you wish for

Posted Sep 26, 2010

Nothing could be more American than the pursuit of happiness. Along with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is written into the Declaration of Independence as a fundamental right. Everyone I know wants to be alive, free, and happy. So what could ever be wrong with pursuing happiness to the fullest extent possible? The more you value your happiness, the happier you will be, right?

Wrong, says compelling new research.

In two studies to be published in the journal Emotion, the authors, led by Iris Mauss of the University of Denver found evidence for an alternative hypothesis: People who value happiness more are less likely to achieve their goal of feeling happy.

In the first study, the authors administered a questionnaire designed to measure the extent to which people valued the experience of happiness as a fundamental goal. Women who valued happiness more were less happy in life than women who valued happiness less. Women who valued happiness more reported that they were less satisfied with the overall course of their lives and were more bothered by symptoms of depression. Strangely enough, valuing happiness seemed most problematic for women whose lives were low in stress--the people for whom happiness should have been within easiest reach.

In the second study, the authors performed an experiment where they tried to briefly increase the extent to which participants valued happiness. They did this by having one group of participants read a bogus newspaper article that extolled the importance of achieving happiness (the other group read an article that did not discuss happiness). Participants who read the happiness-extolling article later on reported less happiness in response to a happy film. Responses to a sad film were unaffected.

Paradoxically, then, valuing happiness more may lead people to be less happy just when happiness is within reach.

I think the authors are on to something BIG that helps us understand why so many Americans are so damned unhappy despite all best efforts devoted to augmenting happiness, or even BECAUSE of such best efforts. Books like the one at the left suggest that achieving happiness is like other goals. If we just focus hard enough on the goal we can finally master happiness, just like how we can figure out how to use new computer software, play the piano, or learn Spanish. However, the goal of becoming happier may be fundamentally different from these other goals. As the authors conclude: "People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it." Setting a goal to become happier is like putting yourself on a treadmill that goes faster the harder you run.


Reference: 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

For more information, see Emotion Regulation Laboratory

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