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Why science says the pursuit of happiness has a dark side

CNET logo CNET 10/29/2020 Erin Carson
Wanting to be happy too hard could make us less happy in the long run. Getty Images © Provided by CNET Wanting to be happy too hard could make us less happy in the long run. Getty Images

It's a reasonable guess that most people want to be happy. "The pursuit of happiness" is even enshrined as a basic right in the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that whatever road gets you to "happy" -- whether it's daily morning runs, reading with the kids, dinner and drinks with friends or a simple five minutes of silence -- is a road you're entitled to take. 

diagram: Brett Pearce/CNET © Provided by CNET Brett Pearce/CNET

But in the midst of a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, rampant unemployment and a general lingering air of uncertainty, many no doubt find it harder than ever to grasp even glimmers of happiness, an already elusive state. Even before COVID-19 disrupted everything, levels of happiness had been dropping, indicators suggested. Self-reported happiness in the US, for example, has been declining since the 1990s, according to 2019's General Social Survey, which gathers data on how Americans feel about a range of topics. 

a close up of a sign: Wanting to be happy too hard could make us less happy in the long run. © Getty Images

Wanting to be happy too hard could make us less happy in the long run.

Perhaps more so now, it's easy to get dialed in -- maybe too dialed in -- to questions of whether you're happy, why you're not and how you could be. 

"It almost feels a little bit like a burden," says Iris Mauss, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. "Each person, as we're able to pursue happiness -- there's the baggage associated with that. We're also then responsible for our own happiness and making that happen."

Somewhere in there lies a tipping point. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But a body of research also shows that chasing happiness, whatever that means to you, might actually be making you miserable. 

What even is happiness?

Going at least as far back as the Greeks, defining happiness has been something of a million-dollar question. 

Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC–370 BC) thought happiness had to do with a "man's cast of mind." Plato thought it was the "enjoyment of what is good and beautiful," while Aristotle thought it had to do with living in accordance with virtue.

More recently, Eleanor Roosevelt said "happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct."

And putting it simply, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz said happiness is a warm puppy.

In the past, "people associated happiness more with what fate bestows on you, and that changed across time as people mastered their environments more and had more say in their circumstances," says Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Especially in the West, in more developed countries, we see happiness as something that is probably more under our control."

"If … our goal is to feel happy all the time, we have set ourselves up for failure from the outset."
Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist, Center for Healthy Minds

For researchers, happiness breaks down into two categories: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, explains Brock Bastain, social psychologist at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, refers to pleasure and the concept that the more pleasure we have, the happier we are. Eudaimonic is a broader idea of happiness, or well being. It's the notion that happiness is experienced through social connections, or the meaningful pursuit of goals or activities. 

Scientists don't even agree on the function of happiness. For some of them, happiness promotes social bonds that build communities, and drives people toward their goals and even makes them more creative. For others, it's uncertain whether emotions as a whole are the result of some evolutionary mechanism or are a psychological construct, says Maya Tamir, professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Happiness for the sake of happiness

The idea that longing for happiness could make you unhappy sounds counterintuitive. 

But as Mauss explains, there's a point at which placing too much value on being happy creates an expectation that's too high. The unmet expectation leads to disappointment. 

"If … our goal is to feel happy all the time, we have set ourselves up for failure from the outset," says Kesebir.

If this chain were applied to a goal, like making more money or getting a better grade on a test, the disappointment could serve as a motivator. But being happy isn't a concrete, objective goal like getting an A. There's a lot more room to fall short of the expectation. 

Consider the impact advertising can have on how happy people think they feel. It's the ads that suggest a new car with a quiet interior, or a phone with the latest features, will unlock a happy life with smiling friends and fluffy dogs. Or the carefully curated social media posts from joyful friends on sunny beaches that make it seem like life should always be a vacation

Researchers at the University of Warwick looked at life satisfaction survey data from 27 countries in Europe from 1980 through 2011, as well as advertising spending, and found that when ad spending in a country went up, so did dissatisfaction within a year or two. 

While the findings were correlational, researcher Andrew Oswald told the Harvard Business Review in 2019, "exposing people to a lot of advertising raises their aspirations -- and makes them feel that their own lives, achievements, belongings, and experiences are inadequate."

a person sitting in a car: Maybe a new car will make you happy? Probably not. Getty Images © Provided by CNET Maybe a new car will make you happy? Probably not. Getty Images

Mauss believes that when people are too single-minded about their own happiness, they can often neglect relationships with others. Perhaps chasing that big promotion at work will yield a new swimming pool, but it could also come at the expense of family time. Not only that, but the more people single-mindedly focus on something, such as questions around their own happiness, the more they risk a "watched kettle never boils" situation.

"As we ask and judge our experiences, that also might interfere with actually being happy," she says. "The happiest experiences we have are actually those, in retrospect, when we didn't even think about it." 

Research suggests those who accept their emotions, even if those emotions are negative, end up feeling happier overall, Tamir says. For some, negative emotions can feel like failure, and even create a dread and avoidance of unhappiness, when in reality it's just part of being human. 

In a paper Mauss co-authored in 2017, researchers found that "individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health," because they had less negative emotion in response to stressors. 

"In the West if you don't feel happy enough, you say to yourself, 'Hey, there's something wrong with me' and then you end up feeling worse," Tamir says.

Feeling bad is normal, unavoidable. Feeling bad about feeling bad is where things can get dicey. 

A healthy pursuit 

None of this is to say that happiness, or wanting to be happy, is bad, or will ultimately lead to unhappiness. 

Research conducted in 2015 by Mauss, Tamir and others suggest that the desire for happiness was universal. People in the US aren't more or less focused on achieving happiness compared with, say, people in Japan. But they pursue happiness differently.

In Western countries, the pursuit is more individualistic. Americans' definition of happiness has less to do with relationships and spending time with friends, family or helping others. They are less social in their pursuit of happiness, Mauss says. They run into a paradox: finding disappointment when chasing happiness.

Bastain says that in societies that place more of a premium on individualism, the pursuit of happiness has become more central to people's lives. 

"Don't make happiness itself a goal."
Brock Bastain, social psychologist, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences

"[The] idea that we are responsible for our own well being and our own happiness, and therefore our happiness and our well being is an indicator of our personal success, has become prominent," he says. 

Japanese and Taiwanese participants, however, operated differently.

"They could be obsessed with happiness all they wanted, presumably because they understood happiness as a social thing," she says. 

In that way, research suggests that focusing on relationships, hobbies and goals is what yields happiness as a byproduct. 

"If I focus on things in life which I know are likely to lead to happiness, but don't make happiness itself a goal -- focusing on connecting with others, contributing well to society, to other people's lives, engaging in meaningful pursuits, those things will bring happiness," Bastain says. 

Editors' note: This story is part of a CNET special report on the science of happiness. For more, read about what science teaches us about happinesshow to boost your happiness hormones; and how a range of people are finding moments of happiness during the pandemic

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