Why Valuing Happiness Is a Good Thing After All

New data contradicts the finding that wanting to be happy dooms you to misery

Posted Feb 12, 2013

In 2011, a paper came out in which the authors declared that wanting to be happy paradoxically makes it so that you can't actually be happy (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson & Savino, 2011). This paper is described in many other blog posts (here, for example), and so I won't spend too much time recounting that previous work here. In a nutshell, though, they found that people who really want to be happy are inevitably disappointed by whatever they experience. Even if they feel pretty good, it's not the elation they expected, so by comparison with their hopes, their experience seems pretty bad.

The end result of this study being published was a series of headlines saying "Stop Trying to Be Happy! You're Ruining It!" I have felt for a long time that this was an epic failure of the science-news cycle because, while the results of the study are compelling (it's thoughtful, well-executed research), the types of conclusions that have made it into the mainstream media are pretty significant overextensions of the data.

The biggest problem with these studies is the way that they defined "valuing happiness." In Study 1, it was measured using a self-report questionnaire that, if you look at the actual items, seems to measure "obsession with happiness" or "desperation to achieve happiness" more than simply thinking happiness is important or valuable. I completely buy that if you are desperate to become happier, it'll be difficult to get yourself there. However, I see a clear difference between desperation to become happier and simply thinking happiness is a vaulable goal worth pursuing.*

Around the same time that Mauss's study came out, I was in the midst of collecting some data using my own questionnaire, which I call Attitudes about the Pursuit of Happiness. In this study (which I recently presented at SPSP with one of my students, Becca Szanto), we found that while people who highly valued the pursuit of happiness were very, very unhappy people (consistent with Mauss's findings), they were also much more successful at becoming happier than were people who did not value the pursuit of happiness. The key difference? Rather than being obsessed with becoming happier, participants who I identified as "positive attitudes about the pursuit of happiness" were simply more motivated. Furthermore, rather than being frustrated by not being able to do anything about their desire for happiness (which, arguably, they were in Mauss's lab studies), these participants were asked to spend 8 weeks practicing happiness-increasing techniques that work (we had these participants read and practice the activities contained in Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness). In this context -- where they have been given a tool to actually achieve greater happiness -- their enhanced motivation to become happier helped them flourish.

It seems to me -- and this is just speculation now -- that Mauss's lab paradigm was kind of like saying "care a lot about being happy, now try and get happier by doing something ineffective." They had people watch brief mood-induction film clips and try really hard to get cheered up by watching them; hardly a real happiness-inducing activity. I'd be frustrated, too, if I cared about happiness and this was my only available tool for pursuing it. I'd be doubly frustrated if I were obsessed with it, as it seems to me that their participants were.

So... attitudes about happiness seem to matter a lot for people trying to become happier. In what way -- helping or hurting -- depends on which paper you're reading.


*I am grateful to Yuna Ferguson, who has on several occasions bounced around ideas with me to refine my thinking on this topic, and to Natasha Fedotova and Katherine Canada, both of whom were involved in the design of the APH measure.

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