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Why You Shouldn’t Pursue Happiness

New research explores the correlation between happiness and free time.

pexels / cco
Source: pexels / cco

At this point in my life, I didn’t expect to be on the hunt for a job… again. I’ve spent most of the last decade hopping from job to job in the Bay Area, each time optimistic that the latest company would be “the one.” The one that I actually want to commit my life to. The one I want to stay with forever. The one that will make me truly happy. But somewhere between my first hour and third year on the job, I begin to suspect that ultimately, it just won’t work out.

Now, as I write then rewrite multiple versions of the same cover letter, I find myself thinking about how eerily similar finding a satisfying job is to finding a satisfying relationship. In both situations, you’ve determined a set of criteria that the other side must already possess or be willing to provide. You typically “interview” around before you find one that you see a real future with. And even when you are convinced that you’ve found the one, the relationship can still bitterly dissolve less than a year later. Why does this keep happening?

I’ve written before about the paradox of choice, the idea that maximizers—those of us who won’t settle for anything but the absolute best—are not as happy as satisficers who don’t need the absolute best and are perfectly satisfied with great options. If you’re constantly pursuing perfection, it’s easy to see how regular stressful days at work might jumpstart a new job search.

But this paradox doesn’t always explain why one year into a seemingly satisfying relationship or job, you suddenly get bored or want to quit. Instead, the answer might lie in another paradox—new research suggests it’s our longing for happiness that may be preventing us from achieving it.

Researchers at Rutgers University and the University of Toronto Scarborough recently conducted four studies to investigate how people perceive and pursue happiness. One experiment set up happiness as a goal to be achieved by asking participants to list things that would make them happier or telling them to try to be happy while watching a boring film. In another experiment, happiness was treated as a goal that was already accomplished, with participants being shown a funny movie while they listed items that already made them happy. Afterwards, both groups shared how much free time they felt they had.


pexels /cco

The answer, according to the findings, is yes. As it turns out, the people who saw happiness as a goal (boring movie watchers) felt they had less free time than those who had already achieved happiness (comedy movie watchers).

From the researchers: “Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit, ” which suggests the more we pursue happiness, the more our perception of how much leisure time we have, and in turn, wellness, becomes skewed. After all, free time is the only time where people can truly enjoy life experiences—which is why a three-hour commute to work (where you’re packed like sardines) can take a significant toll on your mental and emotional health.

What the findings also suggests is that it is a literal waste of time to try to turn happiness into a goal or something that you will one day achieve. In fact, this mindset encourages us to trade experiences for material possessions in an effort to save time but still “buy” happiness, which is a scientifically proven poor substitute for genuine happiness. Moreover, the researchers found that when we feel like we don’t have enough time, we stop doing rewarding activities like volunteering or helping others, which again, has also been proven to increase joy in our lives.

It’s only now that I realize that each time I start a sentence with, “‘l’ll be happy when…” I am robbing myself of the potential happiness of that moment… How hard is it to remember something funny that happened, a positive feeling, or feel grateful to be alive in this current moment?

Maybe it’s time to admit that my ongoing desire to find the perfect job is the exact reason why I’ll never find it. And rather than continuing my regular pattern of wishing and waiting to be happy, I put on a comedy movie and count my blessings instead.