How Do We Break The Happiness Hamster Wheel?

Psychologist Felicia Zerwas explains how happiness is most elusive to those who chase it relentlessly.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 21, 2022

A new study published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences argues that obsessively following happiness for the sake of happiness might be the shortest route to disappointment and dissatisfaction.

I recently spoke to psychologist Felicia Zerwas of the University of California, Berkeley to understand the paradoxical nature of the pursuit of happiness. Here is a summary of our conversation.

This sentence in your abstract stuck out to me: "Some evidence suggests that the more people value happiness, the less happy they are." Could you explain the evidence and reasoning behind this paradox?

People who value happiness to an extreme degree are less likely to attain happiness in both the short term and the long term.

Specifically, extremely valuing happiness relates to lower positive emotion in specific moments and lower levels of psychological well-being and life satisfaction in general.

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.

For example, in one study, researchers showed one group of participants a fake newspaper article focused on happiness to induce valuing happiness while the other group read about an unrelated topic.

When watching a positive film clip, people who were induced to value happiness actually felt 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.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of happiness through this lens? Is there any previous research or subjects that inspired you?

I was immediately intrigued by the premise that wanting to feel happy could backfire, because our society heavily emphasizes and rewards happiness.

Ultimately, I hope our work will inform interventions to aid those who value happiness but are struggling to attain it.

You state that the act of pursuing happiness is detrimental to attaining it, yet some people are successful in their pursuit towards achieving happiness. Why is that and what makes a particular pursuit of happiness successful?

Based on our theorizing, 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. Overall then, 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.

What are the common fallacies that someone takes part in during their search for happiness?

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.

Additionally, I worry that societal pressures 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.

Considering your findings, what are the practical takeaways from your research for someone who is looking to be happy?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our work is the importance of mindfulness and acceptance during the pursuit of happiness. Our theorizing suggests that a large impediment to successful pursuits of happiness is feeling badly about one's emotions. It appears that pursuing happiness without introducing these additional negative feelings could make the success of the pursuit more likely.

Could you elaborate on the two traits that shape the process of pursuing happiness?

Our work focuses on two different approaches to valuing happiness:

  1. Aspiring to happiness
  2. Concern about happiness

People with a tendency to aspire to happiness view happiness as a very important goal. Our theorizing suggests this tendency is relatively harmless.

On the other hand, people with a tendency to be concerned about their happiness judge whether they are happy enough. Our theorizing suggests this tendency gets in the way of attaining happiness by introducing negative feelings into the pursuit of happiness.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve levels of happiness in the general population? Can you tailor an intervention using these findings?

There are two potential interventions that could stem from our theorizing:

  1. The first would be an intervention focused on teaching individuals effective strategies for successfully pursuing happiness
  2. The second would be 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