The happiness paradox — why seeking out happiness might leave you feeling worse

Written by Meg Walters

Do you ever feel like the more you seek out happiness, the sadder you feel? A new study sheds light on the paradoxical nature of chasing happiness and what you can do about it.

What do you want from your life? Whether it’s a great career, a big family or an epic love story, for just about everyone the ultimate goal is simply to be happy. 

So, naturally, plenty of us seek out happiness in our day-to-day lives. We try to look for jobs, friends and experiences that make us happy. We follow the latest TikTok hacks that promise to make us feel better. We put on a feel-good movie after a stressful day. But what if our constant pursuit of happiness is actually having the opposite effect – what if it’s making us feel worse?

According to a new study in Current Opinion In Behavioural Sciences, the happiness paradox means the more we chase happiness, the less happy we feel.

Does the pursuit of happiness really make us feel worse?

In the study, two psychologists examined how seeking out happiness can actually have negative short- and long-term consequences on our mental health.

In fact, in today’s world, the happiness paradox has become more relevant than ever. As researcher Felicia Zerwas explained to fellow psychologist Mark Travers: “I was immediately intrigued by the premise that wanting to feel happy could backfire because our society heavily emphasises and rewards happiness.”

So, why does seeking happiness fail? “One reason that scientists think that valuing happiness might backfire is because it might lead people to feel more disappointed at times when happiness is most within reach,” she said.

For instance, Zerwas looked at one study in which participants were shown a film clip. Those who valued happiness more highly were more disappointed after watching the clip. This suggests that focusing too much on our own happiness can lead to disappointment when things don’t make us as happy as we had hoped. In other words, sometimes having lower expectations can work out in your favour.

How you approach happiness makes a difference

Oddly enough, the happiness paradox doesn’t effect everyone in the same way. In fact, some people are able to place a high value on happiness and achieve it in their lives.

As Zerwas explained, people tend to approach happiness in two distinct ways:

  • “Aspiring to happiness” – these people treat happiness as a goal
  • “Concern about happiness” – these people worry about and over analyse their own happiness levels

According to the research, having a goal of being happy is more likely to be effective, while judging your current happiness levels is more likely to lead to a downward spiral of disappointment.

What if our constant pursuit of happiness is actually having the opposite effect — what if it’s making us feel worse?

Reframing your approach to happiness

If you feel that your pursuit of happiness isn’t really working, Zerwas’s research can help.

Find positive ways to pursue happiness

Think about how you are pursuing happiness and introduce positive strategies. “Prioritising activities that bring positivity to one’s daily life is an evidence-based strategy to increase one’s happiness,” she said. “If people are able to recruit useful strategies to reach their goal of feeling happy, then the pursuit is much more likely to be successful.”

Try not to negatively judge how you feel

If you value happiness, it’s only natural that you’ll feel disappointed when negative things happen. Notice how you react to negative feelings. “Typically, feeling badly about something can help motivate us to pursue our goals more successfully,” Zerwas said. 

However, this principle doesn’t apply when our goal is happiness. “Feeling badly about our emotions during the pursuit of happiness is counterproductive to the goal of feeling happy and makes attaining happiness less likely,” she said.

Find out what makes you happy

Think about what you’re doing in your pursuit of happiness — are you actually doing things that will lead to happiness? As an example: “Most people believe that spending money on oneself (versus someone else) should promote happiness but empirical research suggests the opposite,” Zerwas explained. “People who spend money on themselves are not as happy as those who spend it on other people.”

Accept your emotions as they are

If you are actively pursuing a happy life, you may feel like you’ve failed at your goal if you experience sadness from time to time. “Research suggests this is not the case,” said Zerwas. “Accepting one’s emotions (whether those emotions are positive or negative) can increase wellbeing over time.”

Work with a therapist to find a proactive way to pursue happiness

If you’re struggling to find effective strategies to manage your expectations and pursue happiness in a productive way, Zerwas suggests working with a therapist.

Use mindfulness to reduce negativity around the pursuit of happiness

“Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our work is the importance of mindfulness and acceptance during the pursuit of happiness,” said Zerwas. Introduce a mindfulness practice into your routine to accept sadness or frustration when it comes and, within time, let it go. 

Images: Getty

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