The Pursuit (and Paradox) of Happiness

Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
December 14, 2021

Many people have been telling me lately that they are really feeling stressed by the holidays. While many of us look forward to the holidays as a chance to take a breath, recharge and spend quality time with friends and family, there are some people for whom the holidays represent a time of feeling sad, down or disappointed.

Our culture often prescribes happiness as something that must be pursued, chased after, worked for — something that takes effort and energy to achieve and maintain. While this may be true for some, some recent research suggests this approach can have a paradoxical effect, leading to stress, loneliness and personal failure.  

These studies suggest that happiness should be treated like a timid house cat. The more you pursue it, the more it avoids you.It is when you settle down and stop trying so hard that the cat will approach you.

Expectation Are the Enemy

In one study, Iris Mauss and her colleagues separated participants into two groups. The experimental group was asked to read a fake newspaper article extolling the importance of happiness. The control group read a similar article about the benefits of good judgment. No statements were made in reference to emotion. The team then asked the participants to watch a heartwarming film about an Olympic win. Both groups were then asked questions about their feelings after the film.

Here they found a paradoxical effect. The film was less likely to lift the mood of the people who had been primed to desire greater happiness, compared with the people who had read the neutral article.

It seems that creating higher expectations about how the participants “should” feel later adversely affected how they experience watching something optimistic and hopeful. It appears that when their actual feelings didn’t reach those expected standards, they felt disappointed rather than elated at the end of the film.

In another study, Mauss found that the pursuit of happiness can lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnection. This study suggests that when we focus our attention on ourselves and our feelings rather than appreciating the people around us, loneliness and disconnection may result.

In another study, Aekyound Kim and Sam Maglio asked participants to list the 10 things that would make them happy in their life (which might be something as simple as devoting a few hours a week to being with family). Our cultural norms might suggest that this list would lead to feelings of optimism about the future. Instead, it caused participants to be especially stressed about the limited time they had to do all those things. They ended up less happy as a result. This was not true if they simply listed the things that made them happy at that moment — it was the desire to increase their happiness that was the problem.

Happiness Lives in the Moment

The challenge for all of us is that happiness is not a fixed state or a destination. It is a process that involves us being in the moment. As a result, it is not something that we can maximize or store away. As much as we may want to prolong our feelings of happiness, they exist in the present moment. When we lose sight of this or if we never reach awareness of this fact, the pursuit of happiness becomes a burden that has paradoxical effects. 

We end up chasing the timid cat around that house rather than letting it come to us.  

Given these findings, is it a mystery as to why looking at the curated and airbrushed lives of other people on social media increases our desire to have more exciting and happier lives and results in our actually being less happy?

So, as we move into a new year, we have a choice. Do we want to pursue happiness based on what we see in the lives of others? Do we want to maximize happiness in our own lives by pursuing it? Or do we want to appreciate happiness in the moments in which it occurs?

I don’t know about you, but I’m waiting for that timid house cat to come to me.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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