Most people want to. The “pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined as a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that whatever path takes you to be “happy”—whether it’s a daily morning run, reading with your kids, dinner and drinks with friends, or simply five minutes of silence — is the path you have the right to take.
But in the midst of a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, rampant unemployment and general lingering uncertainty, it is no doubt harder than ever for many to grasp even a glimmer of happiness, a state that is already elusive. Even beforeit has disrupted everything, the level of happiness has fallen, the indicators suggest. Self-reported happiness in the US, for example, has been declining since the 1990s, according to the 2019 General Social Survey, which collects data on how Americans feel about a range of topics.
Perhaps more so, it’s now easy to get invited—perhaps too invited—to questions about whether you’re happy, why you’re not, and how you might be.
“I almost feel like a burden,” says Iris Mauss, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “Each person, as we are able to pursue happiness – there is baggage associated with it. We are also responsible for our own happiness and making it happen.”
Somewhere inside lies the breaking point. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But plenty of research also shows that chasing happiness, whatever that means to you, can actually make you unhappy.
What is happiness anyway?
Dating back at least to the Greeks, defining happiness has been something of a million dollar question.
Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC)
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thought that happiness had to do with “the structure of the human mind”. Plato thought it was “the enjoyment of what is good and beautiful,” while Aristotle thought it had to do with living a life of virtue.
Eleanor Roosevelt recently said that “happiness is not the goal, it is the by-product.”
Put simply, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz said that happiness is a warm puppy.
In the past, “people associated happiness more with what fate gave you, and that changed over time as people became more in control of their environment and had more say in their circumstances,” says Pelin Kesebir, assistant research scientist at the Center for a Healthy Mind at University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Especially in the West, in more developed countries, we see happiness as something that is probably more within our control.”
For researchers, happiness falls into two categories: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, explains Brock Bastain, a 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 the broader idea of happiness or well-being. It is the idea that happiness is experienced through social connections, or meaningful pursuit of goals or activities.
Scientists don’t even agree on the function of happiness. For some of them, happiness promotes the social bonds that build communities and drives people toward their goals and even makes them more creative. For others, it is 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 happiness’ sake
The idea that longing for happiness could make you unhappy sounds counterintuitive.
But, as Maus explains, there is a point at which placing too much value on being happy creates expectations that are too high. Unfulfilled expectations lead to disappointment.
“If… our goal is to feel happy all the time, we’ve set ourselves up for failure from the start,” says Kesebir.
If this chain were applied to a goal, such as earning more money or getting a better grade on a test, disappointment could serve as motivation. But being happy isn’t a concrete, objective goal like getting an A. There’s a lot more room to fall short of expectations.
Consider the effect advertising can have on how happy people think they are. Ads suggesting 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 of happy friends on sunny beaches that make it seem like life should always be a vacation
Researchers from the University of Warwick looked at life satisfaction data from 27 countries in Europe
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from 1980 to 2011, as well as advertising spending, and found that when advertising spending in a country increased, so did dissatisfaction within a year or two.
Although the findings were correlated, researcher Andrew Oswald told the Harvard Business Review in 2019, “exposing people to large amounts of advertising raises their aspirations—and makes them feel inadequate about their lives, accomplishments, possessions, and experiences.”
Mauss believes that when people are too devoted to their own happiness, they can often neglect their relationships with others. Maybe chasing that big promotion at work will bring a new pool, but it could also come at the expense of family time. Not only that, but the more people focus on something, such as questions about their own happiness, the more they risk the “watched kettle never boils” situation.
“As we question and judge our experiences, it can also interfere with real happiness,” she says. “The happiest experiences we have are actually the ones, in retrospect, when we didn’t even think about it.”
Research suggests that those who accept their emotions, even if those emotions are negative, end up feeling happier, says Tamir. For some, negative emotions can feel like failure and even create fear and avoidance of unhappiness, when in reality it’s just part of being human.
In a 2017 paper co-authored by Mauss, researchers found that “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may achieve better psychological health” because they had fewer negative emotions 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,” says Tamir.
Feeling bad is normal, inevitable. Feeling bad about feeling bad is where things can get awkward.
None of this is to say that happiness, or the desire to be happy, is bad, or that it will ultimately lead to unhappiness.
Research conducted in 2015 by Mauss, Tamir and others shows that the desire for happiness was universal. People in the US are no more or less focused on achieving happiness than, say, people in Japan. But they seek happiness differently.
In Western countries, the search is more individualistic. The American 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, says Mauss. They fall into a paradox: they find disappointment when they chase happiness.
Bastain says that in societies that place more emphasis on individualism, the pursuit of happiness has become more central to people’s lives.
“[The] 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, acted differently.
“They could obsess over happiness as much as they wanted, probably because they understood happiness as a social thing,” she says.
Thus, research suggests that focusing on relationships, hobbies, and goals is what brings happiness as a byproduct.
“If I focus on the things in life that I know are likely to lead to happiness, but I don’t make happiness a goal for myself—focusing on connecting with others, contributing well to society, to other people’s lives, doing meaningful activities, those things will bring happiness “, says Bastain.
For more, read about what science teaches us about happiness and how to raise happy hormones.