If You Want to Be Happy, Don't Think About it Too Much

Sometimes chasing goals can backfire

Posted May 15, 2018

Myriams-Fotos/Pixaby
Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixaby

Usually, thinking about how to achieve a goal helps to make it happen.

If you wanted to know how to make money you might get some books from the library and read up on the topic, take a course or two, think long and hard about the best strategies to use, experiment with the money-making techniques you learn, fail a few times, keep practicing, get better, and eventually, with a little luck, succeed in your quest to generate some wealth.

In general, the longer we think about something and the more effort we invest in it, the more likely we are to achieve our goals.

So, it serves to reason that people who invest lots of effort in thinking about how to be happy will be happier than those for whom happiness isn’t a major priority. Just like those who want to make money, people who position happiness as an important goal for themselves are more likely to read up on happiness, think about happiness, experiment with various happiness-inducing techniques, and are, in the end, more likely to be happier than those who don’t make happiness a priority, right?

Not necessarily.

I was interested in this question, so I ran a study with one of my students to see if those who have a higher desire for happiness end up actually being happier. I had an intuition that attempts to boost happiness might backfire, having observed that a certain person I know who makes happiness a high priority suffers from periodic bouts of depression. A single person is hardly a robust sample to generalize from, but I had this hunch. I needed to pursue it.

My student and I developed a test that we called the “Need for Happiness Scale” which included questions like “I devote a significant amount of time to making myself happy”, “Compared to other people, I am more concerned about being happy”, and “I tend to think about ways to increase my happiness”. It was designed to measure the degree to which people made being happy a priority in their lives. We administered it to about 360 people along with a number of other scales and found some very interesting results.

Overall, people who scored higher on the Need for Happiness Scale had lower levels of life satisfaction, and higher levels of depression and negative emotions. My intuition was confirmed. People who made happiness a priority were, in fact, less happy. For this particular goal, it seems that the direct pursuit of it actually pushes achieving it further away. Since the time we ran our study, other researchers have produced similar results showing that, in general, when people try to be happy they can paradoxically undermine their own happiness.

The verdict is in. Trying to be happy undermines your happiness. So, stop trying.

MI PHAM on Unsplash
Source: MI PHAM on Unsplash

Well, not so fast. There’s one important caveat to this story. The questions on the Need for Happiness scale can be broken down into two types. One type of question concerns how people think about promoting their happiness, such as the item “I tend to think of ways to increase my happiness”. The other type of question concerns the actions people take to make themselves happier, such as the item “If I’m not happy I work to try to make myself happier”. In our study, the damaging effects of trying to promote happiness were restricted to the items that concerned thoughts people had about fostering happiness. It turns out that thinking about happiness is detrimental and fosters the negative outcomes we observed. But when we examined only the questions about actions people take to be happy, we found that they actually had beneficial effects, such as promoting life satisfaction and reducing depression. What these findings reveal is that it’s the ruminating about whether or not we’re happy, and analyzing the degree to which we’re happy at any given time, that gets in the way of promoting the happiness we seek. By contrast, intentionally engaging in activities we find enjoyable and satisfying can indeed promote happiness.

The bottom line is that happiness is best thought of as a byproduct of living an engaged life. Unlike making money, which can be fostered by analyzing one’s finances and trying to develop a plan to improve them, thinking about making ourselves happy can backfire. Don’t think about it. Just do it.