Be Happy, But Don't Worry So Much About It

An expert weighs in on our relentless pursuit of happiness.

Posted Jul 16, 2015

A version of this post appeared in the New York Times Opinion Pages ("Room For Debate").

Legend has it that Icarus, on his fake feathered wings, refused to heed his father’s injunction to “fly the middle course,” and consequently saw his wings melt and fell into the sea.

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Avoiding extremes—both in excess and deficiency—is a wisdom preached by Aristotle, Confucius, Aquinas, and many other thinkers and writers. The prescription applies to working too hard versus too little; parenting by decree versus neglect; and pursuing happiness too earnestly versus not at all.

Western culture’s universal messages about the desirability of happiness motivate some to become consumed with the pursuit of personal well-being. Such an obsession can lead people to shirk other critical responsibilities and life goals (like discharging tasks that may be boring or unpleasant), to monitor happiness too much (“Am I happy yet?" "Am I happy yet?”), and to be disheartened when their sense of flourishing, joy, and meaning doesn’t improve rapidly enough. Just like dieters shouldn’t weigh themselves several times a day, happiness seekers shouldn’t evaluate their happiness too frequently.

An unhealthy preoccupation with happiness by the few, however, doesn’t mean that its pursuit should be renounced by the many. Overwhelming longitudinal, correlational, and experimental evidence shows that happy people (or those randomly assigned to a happiness manipulation) are physically healthier and more creative; more likely to get married, win job interviews, and make more money; are more productive and philanthropic; and cope better with the adversities of life.

Happiness evidently not only feels good, it precedes, relates to, and causes success in life.

Fortunately, growing experimental research by my laboratory and others also reveals that becoming significantly happier is achievable. People randomly assigned to regularly practice certain habits like gratitude, kindness, optimism, and meditation, report becoming happier, relative to members of control groups.

Yet how are we to know whether progress towards personal or societal happiness is made?

We need to measure it. . .