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Can Wanting to Be Happy Backfire?

Why wanting to feel happy might paradoxically lead you to feel less happy.

Key points

  • Evidence suggests the more you want to feel happy, the less happy you may actually feel.
  • A new paper explains why this paradox is not inevitable.
  • Realistic expectations, effective strategies, and accepting both positive and negative emotions may be the keys to successful happiness pursuit.
 Gino Crescoli/Pixabay
The more you want to feel happy, the less happy you may actually feel. Fortunately, this paradox is not inevitable.
Source: Gino Crescoli/Pixabay

Most people want to feel happy. But can wanting to feel happy backfire? In a recent paper titled “The Paradox of Pursuing Happiness,” researchers at the University of California Berkeley (Felicia Zerwas) and the University of Toronto (Dr. Brett Ford) explored this question. Evidence suggests the more you want to feel happy, the less happy you may actually feel. Fortunately, this paradox is not inevitable. Many people who want to feel happy are successful at attaining their happiness goal. In their recent paper, Zerwas and Ford suggest that how you pursue happiness matters.

How Pursuing Happiness Can Go Awry

Zerwas and Ford proposed a three-stage model of happiness pursuit. First, people set a goal to be happy. Second, they engage in strategies to work toward their happiness goal. Third, they monitor their progress toward their happiness goal. Using this model, Zerwas and Ford identified how the pursuit of happiness can go wrong, as well as how it can go right.

1. Setting a Happiness Goal

When setting a goal to be happy, expectations matter. Unrealistic expectations about the intensity or frequency of happiness can backfire.

Think about an event that you were really looking forward to. Maybe you thought to yourself, “This is going to be the best night of my life.” If that event was anything less than the best night of your life, you might have felt let down, even if it was still a really good night. Desiring or expecting to feel extremely happy can make it more difficult to enjoy the level of happiness that you do feel.

Similarly, it is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time or in every situation. Sometimes, it’s OK to not be happy. In fact, research suggests that negative emotions such as anger and anxiety can be useful. For example, anger can motivate people to fight injustice and anxiety can help people avoid threatening situations. It is normal and healthy to experience a variety of positive and negative emotions.

2. Pursuing a Happiness Goal

People use a variety of strategies to pursue their happiness goals. Some of those strategies are more likely to be successful than others. Unfortunately, people aren’t always good at knowing which strategies will make them happy.

Bob Dmyt/Pixabay
Research suggests that spending money on other people tends to make people happier than spending money on themselves.
Source: Bob Dmyt/Pixabay

Consider how you spend your money. Research suggests spending money on other people tends to make people happier than spending money on oneself. Yet, most people believe that spending money on themselves will make them happier. Similarly, spending money on experiences tends to make people happier than spending money on material things. Yet, many people believe the opposite. If we don’t know what will make us happy, we are likely to choose the wrong strategies when pursuing happiness goals.

 Andrzej Rembowski/Pixabay
Research suggests engaging in positive activities such as exercising and spending time with others can make people happier.
Source: Andrzej Rembowski/Pixabay

Research suggests engaging in positive activities, such as exercising, pursuing personally meaningful goals, and building social relationships may be successful strategies to increase happiness. Evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy, can also be effective at increasing happiness and reducing suffering.

While scientific findings like those described here can point us in the right direction, they can’t necessarily tell us what strategy is best for every person and every situation. More research is needed to understand for whom, and in what situations, particular strategies are likely to increase happiness and how long those benefits are likely to last.

3. Monitoring a Happiness Goal

An important step in goal pursuit is monitoring progress toward one’s goal. But in the case of happiness goal pursuit, monitoring can backfire. If someone finds that they are not as happy as they want to be, they might feel disappointed. Feeling disappointed can sometimes be beneficial for goal pursuit, because it can motivate people to try harder to reach their goals. But for happiness goals, negative emotions like disappointment are in direct competition with the goal to feel happier. Accepting both positive and negative emotions—rather than judging them as good or bad—may help people avoid this paradox.

The Future of Research on the Paradox of Pursuing Happiness

Zerwas and Ford hope that their paper will guide future research on the paradox of pursuing happiness. For example, more research is needed to understand for whom happiness pursuit is most likely to backfire, as well as what types of strategies and interventions might lead to successful happiness pursuit. In the meantime, Zerwas suggests using this as an opportunity to consider what is working for you and what you might try to change about your happiness pursuit. “Some people might benefit from engaging in new activities that actually bring them happiness, whereas others might benefit from letting go of constantly evaluating whether they are happy enough,” said Zerwas.


Zerwas, F. K., & Ford, B. Q. (2021). The paradox of pursuing happiness. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 39, 106-112.

Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2014). Happy money: The science of happier spending. Simon and Schuster.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

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