Why science says the pursuit of happiness has a dark side

Desirous to be glad too laborious might make us much less glad in the long term.

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It is a cheap guess that most individuals need to be happy. “The pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined as a fundamental proper within the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that no matter highway will get you to “glad” — whether or not it is every day morning runs, studying with the children, dinner and drinks with associates or a easy 5 minutes of silence — is a highway you are entitled to take. 


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However within the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with a whole lot of 1000’s of lives misplaced, rampant unemployment and a common lingering air of uncertainty, many little question discover it tougher than ever to understand even glimmers of happiness, an already elusive state. Even earlier than COVID-19 disrupted the whole lot, ranges of happiness had been dropping, indicators recommended. Self-reported happiness within the US, for instance, has been declining since the 1990s, in keeping with 2019’s Common Social Survey, which gathers information on how People really feel a few vary of subjects. 

Maybe extra so now, it is simple to get dialed in — perhaps too dialed in — to questions of whether or not you are glad, why you are not and the way you could possibly be. 

“It virtually feels a bit of bit like a burden,” says Iris Mauss, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Every individual, as we’re in a position to pursue happiness — there’s the luggage related to that. We’re additionally then accountable for our personal happiness and making that occur.”

Someplace in there lies a tipping level. There’s nothing unsuitable with desirous to be glad. However a physique of analysis additionally exhibits that chasing happiness, no matter which means to you, would possibly really be making you depressing. 

What even is happiness?

Going no less than way back to the Greeks, defining happiness has been one thing of a million-dollar query. 

Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC–370 BC) thought happiness needed to do with a “man’s solid of thoughts.” Plato thought it was the “enjoyment of what’s good and exquisite,” whereas Aristotle thought it needed to do with dwelling in accordance with advantage.

Extra not too long ago, Eleanor Roosevelt stated “happiness just isn’t a objective, it’s a byproduct.”

And placing it merely, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz stated happiness is a heat pet.

Previously, “individuals related happiness extra with what destiny bestows on you, and that modified throughout time as individuals mastered their environments extra and had extra say of their circumstances,” says Pelin Kesebir, assistant scientist on the Center for Healthy Minds on the College of Wisconsin-Madison, “Particularly within the West, in additional developed nations, we see happiness as one thing that’s in all probability extra below our management.”

For researchers, happiness breaks down into two classes: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, explains Brock Bastain, social psychologist on the Melbourne Faculty of Psychological Sciences in Australia, refers to pleasure and the idea that the extra pleasure we now have, the happier we’re. Eudaimonic is a broader concept of happiness, or effectively being. It is the notion that happiness is skilled by way of social connections, or the significant pursuit of objectives or actions. 

Scientists do not even agree on the operate of happiness. For a few of them, happiness promotes social bonds that construct communities, and drives individuals towards their objectives and even makes them extra artistic. For others, it is unsure whether or not feelings as a complete are the results of some evolutionary mechanism or are a psychological assemble, says Maya Tamir, professor of psychology on the Hebrew College of Jerusalem.

Happiness for the sake of happiness

The concept eager for happiness might make you sad sounds counterintuitive. 

However as Mauss explains, there is a level at which putting an excessive amount of worth on being glad creates an expectation that is too excessive. The unmet expectation results in disappointment. 

“If … our objective is to really feel glad on a regular basis, we now have set ourselves up for failure from the outset,” says Kesebir.

If this chain had been utilized to a objective, like making extra money or getting a greater grade on a check, the frustration might function a motivator. However being glad is not a concrete, goal objective like getting an A. There’s much more room to fall in need of the expectation. 

Think about the impression promoting can have on how glad individuals assume they really feel. It is the adverts that counsel a brand new automotive with a quiet inside, or a cellphone with the most recent options, will unlock a contented life with smiling associates and fluffy canine. Or the rigorously curated social media posts from joyful associates on sunny seashores that make it seem to be life ought to all the time be a trip

Researchers on the College of Warwick checked out life satisfaction survey data from 27 countries in Europe from 1980 by way of 2011, in addition to promoting spending, and located that when advert spending in a rustic went up, so did dissatisfaction inside a 12 months or two. 

Whereas the findings had been correlational, researcher Andrew Oswald instructed the Harvard Business Review in 2019, “exposing individuals to a variety of promoting raises their aspirations — and makes them really feel that their very own lives, achievements, belongings, and experiences are insufficient.”


Perhaps a brand new automotive will make you cheerful? Most likely not. 

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Mauss believes that when individuals are too single-minded about their very own happiness, they’ll typically neglect relationships with others. Maybe chasing that large promotion at work will yield a brand new swimming pool, nevertheless it might additionally come on the expense of household time. Not solely that, however the extra individuals single-mindedly deal with one thing, akin to questions round their very own happiness, the extra they threat a “watched kettle by no means boils” scenario.

“As we ask and decide our experiences, that additionally would possibly intervene with really being glad,” she says. “The happiest experiences we now have are literally these, looking back, after we did not even give it some thought.” 

Analysis suggests those that settle for their feelings, even when these feelings are damaging, find yourself feeling happier total, Tamir says. For some, damaging feelings can really feel like failure, and even create a dread and avoidance of unhappiness, when in actuality it is simply a part of being human. 

In a paper Mauss co-authored in 2017, researchers discovered that “people who settle for quite than decide their psychological experiences could attain better psychological health,” as a result of that they had much less damaging emotion in response to stressors. 

“Within the West should you do not feel glad sufficient, you say to your self, ‘Hey, there’s one thing unsuitable with me’ after which you find yourself feeling worse,” Tamir says.

Feeling dangerous is regular, unavoidable. Feeling dangerous about feeling dangerous is the place issues can get dicey. 

A wholesome pursuit 

None of that is to say that happiness, or desirous to be glad, is dangerous, or will finally result in unhappiness. 

Analysis performed in 2015 by Mauss, Tamir and others counsel that the desire for happiness was universal. Folks within the US aren’t roughly centered on reaching happiness in contrast with, say, individuals in Japan. However they pursue happiness in another way.

In Western nations, the pursuit is extra individualistic. People’ definition of happiness has much less to do with relationships and spending time with associates, household or serving to others. They’re much less social of their pursuit of happiness, Mauss says. They run right into a paradox: discovering disappointment when chasing happiness.

Bastain says that in societies that place extra of a premium on individualism, the pursuit of happiness has change into extra central to individuals’s lives. 

“[The] concept that we’re accountable for our personal effectively being and our personal happiness, and subsequently our happiness and our effectively being is an indicator of our private success, has change into distinguished,” he says. 

Japanese and Taiwanese contributors, nonetheless, operated in another way.

“They may very well be obsessive about happiness all they needed, presumably as a result of they understood happiness as a social factor,” she says. 

In that manner, analysis means that specializing in relationships, hobbies and objectives is what yields happiness as a byproduct. 

“If I deal with issues in life which I do know are more likely to result in happiness, however do not make happiness itself a objective — specializing in connecting with others, contributing effectively to society, to different individuals’s lives, participating in significant pursuits, these issues will carry happiness,” Bastain says. 

Editors’ be aware: This story is a part of a PJDM particular report on the science of happiness. For extra, examine what science teaches us about happinesshow to boost your happiness hormones; and how a range of people are finding moments of happiness during the pandemic

The knowledge contained on this article is for instructional and informational functions solely and isn’t meant as well being or medical recommendation. All the time seek the advice of a doctor or different certified well being supplier concerning any questions you might have a few medical situation or well being aims.

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Erin Carson