Clearly we’re hard-core happiness pushers in this blog. We talk to people who study happiness, we share experiences of happiness in our own lives, we report on happiness news that has hit the headlines.
And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with chasing happiness, it turns out there can be a downside in focusing too much on how to be happier, reports a new review study in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. June Gruber, co-author of the study and assistant professor of the Yale University’s Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Lab, fills us in on what that dark side might be.
Q: What are some of the downsides to pursuing happiness?
A: Most people report wanting to be happier than they are. And part of this happiness zeitgeist is wanting to strive for happiness whenever and however possible. However, should we always try to maximize happiness? Could there be wrong ways to pursue happiness? Some recent work suggests the counterintuitive idea — that striving for happiness is not always good. They found that people who highly value the pursuit of happiness may actually experience less happiness.
Q: How so?
A: This paradoxical effect is explained by setting up expectations that one must be happy. Then the more people strive for happiness, the more likely they will become disappointed about how they feel. And this will paradoxically decrease their happiness the more they want or strive for it.
Q: Is there any way to avoid these downsides? Is it about setting more realistic expectations for example?
A: There are two things to keep in mind to avoid the potential downsides pursuing happiness. First, don’t overly focus or strive on happiness as an end point in itself. Instead engage in meaningful life activities and relationships that are pleasurable or important to you. Happiness will follow as a consequence, without being the spotlight or primary motivation for you to engage in these activities. Second, set up less expectations or “shoulds” about the types of activities that should make you happy, or the degree to which you should be happy. Work on accepting your current happiness state.
Q: So what’s the take away information for our readers?
A: There is nothing inherently wrong with being happy. Most of us want to be happy, and rightly so! So we should definitely be happy, but be careful to not focus on being too happy, or being too happy all the time.
And we should focus on being happy for the right reasons. Not for money or fame, but for our social networks and by engaging in happiness-enhancing activities that are pleasurable to us.
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