A Psychologist Explains Why Your Pursuit Of Happiness Is Making You Unhappy

Happiness does not come nearly as easily to the ones who constantly pursue it.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 27, 2022

A new study published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences explains that obsessively focusing on happiness (or the lack thereof) might be a permanent obstacle in your pursuit of it. Instead, accepting your emotions as they are gives you a far better shot at unlocking true happiness.

"People who value happiness to an extreme degree are less likely to attain happiness in both the short term and the long term," explains psychologist Felicia Zerwas of the University of California, Berkeley. "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."

To explain this paradox, Zerwas cites a study where researchers showed one group of participants a fake newspaper article focused on happiness to induce valuing happiness while another group read about a topic unrelated to happiness.

The study found that the people who were induced to value happiness were less happy compared to people in the other group.

"When looking into what explains this, the researchers found that these lower levels of happiness were explained by feeling more disappointed while they were watching the clip," she explains.

In other words, an over-attentiveness to our own feelings of happiness and contentment causes us to focus on life's 'what-ifs' and 'why-nots' to a counterproductive degree.

Zerwas' study focused on two different approaches people take when valuing happiness:

  1. Aspiring to happiness: People who take this approach view happiness as a very important goal. The study suggests that this tendency is relatively harmless.
  2. Concern about happiness: People who take this approach have a tendency to judge whether they are happy enough. It is this tendency, according to Zerwas, that gets in the way of attaining happiness by introducing negative feelings into the pursuit of happiness.

Based on these two approaches, Zerwas suggests that there are two elements of the pursuit of happiness that can "make or break" the pursuit.

  1. First, the strategies that an individual uses to pursue happiness matter. For example, prioritizing activities that bring positivity to one's daily life is an evidence-based strategy to increase one's happiness. 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.
  2. Second, the extent to which an individual feels badly about their emotions while pursuing happiness matters. Typically, feeling badly about something can help motivate us to pursue our goals more successfully. For example, after getting a poor performance review, feeling badly can help motivate us to perform better in the future. The same is not true when our goal is to feel happy; feeling badly about our emotions during the pursuit of happiness is counterproductive to the goal of feeling happy and makes attaining happiness less likely.

Zerwas also mentions a couple of common fallacies that people run into while on the pursuit of happiness that can set them up for disappointment:

  1. Unfortunately, people don't always know what will bring them happiness which leads them to engage in strategies that are not actually useful. For example, most people believe that spending money on oneself (versus someone else) should promote one's happiness but empirical research suggests the opposite: people who spend money on themselves are not as happy as those who spend it on other people.
  2. Additionally, societal pressures can sometimes encourage the fallacy that people must feel happy all of the time to achieve greater well-being. Research suggests this is not the case. Accepting one's emotions (whether those emotions are positive or negative) can increase well-being over time.

"Overall, allowing oneself to experience one's emotions, whatever they may be, with an accepting attitude could be a useful tool for pursuing happiness," she explains.

For anyone who finds themselves stuck in this paradoxical happiness treadmill, Zerwas describes two intervention modalities that could help:

  1. The first is an intervention focused on teaching individuals effective strategies for successfully pursuing happiness. Mental health practitioners can help people identify which happiness exercised might be most effective for their specific situation.
  2. The second is an intervention focused on mindfulness practices to decrease the pressure of setting emotional goals and decrease the likelihood of feeling badly about one's emotions during the pursuit of happiness.

A full interview with psychologist Felicia Zerwas discussing her research can be found here: How do we break the happiness hamster wheel?