These Common Ways of Seeking Happiness Can Backfire

Paradoxically, the more we focus on trying to be happy, the less happy we are.

Posted Dec 06, 2019

The desire to be happy is considered by many psychologists to be nearly universal. Although cultures may differ in the specific emotional states they value, most people want to feel good, however they define it. But the things we do to try to attain happiness are not always effective, and in some cases, they can make us feel worse. 

According to a growing body of research, people who say they value happiness tend to score lower on measures of psychological well-being and are at greater risk for mental illness. While this relationship may go both ways—lacking happiness might make you want it more—experimental research points to a causal relationship between pursuing happiness and feeling less happy. 

For example, one study found that participants who were instructed to try to make themselves feel happy while listening to music felt worse than those who did not receive this instruction and listened to the same song. Another study found that participants who were primed to value happiness through a news article reported less happiness after watching a happy film clip (a figure skater winning a gold medal) compared to participants who read a different article. 

Why would trying to be happy backfire in this way? The researchers spearheading this line of inquiry argue that the problem lies in how we pursue happiness. Here are three approaches that seem to be especially self-defeating—-and what we can do instead.

1. Having an unrealistic definition of happiness.

One reason why happiness can be elusive is because we tend to define it in a way that is not realistically attainable. The reality is that life is not always pleasant, and it’s just not possible (or practical) to feel happy all the time or to feel it as intensely as we might want. 

When people fail to attain the level of happiness they hope for or think they “should” experience, they are likely to feel disappointed and discouraged, which in turn reduces their happiness. A particularly relatable study on this topic found that the more effort people put into their New Year’s Eve plans, the less they enjoyed the night, perhaps because their expectations were set so high. Had it been any other night, they might have felt differently.

So is the solution just to lower our expectations? Not necessarily. But it can be helpful to be realistic about the range of emotions that are a part of the human experience and to accept our emotions for what they are, rather than judging ourselves negatively for failing to live up to a happiness ideal. In fact, some research suggests that mixed emotions are more conducive to overall well-being than pure positivity. In one study, participants undergoing psychotherapy who reported feeling happiness and sadness concurrently made greater improvements in psychological health over time.

2. Focusing on fleeting sources of pleasure.

A second roadblock is that in our efforts to feel better, we might opt for activities that give us a short-lived boost rather than those that are more likely to result in sustained well-being.

Research has found that people feel happiest when they engage in behaviors that satisfy fundamental psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, in a daily diary study, participants reported more satisfaction from social interactions that involved talking about meaningful topics and feeling understood and appreciated. In addition, doing something because you enjoy it and value it for its own sake, such as spending time on a hobby or passion, tends to be more satisfying than doing something for an external reason, like seeking validation on social media.

That’s not to say we can’t enjoy fleeting pleasures too; they’re just less reliable as a source of long-term happiness.

3. Monitoring rather than experiencing.

Perhaps one of the most significant ways chasing happiness can keep it at a distance is that when we are hyper-aware of happiness, we might spend more time monitoring and evaluating our experience than actually experiencing it. Thinking about whether or not we’re happy can be distracting and make it harder to be “present” in the moment and absorbed in what we’re doing.

People who are prone to ruminate may be especially harmed by over-analyzing their happiness levels. In one study, participants who were high in neuroticism reported less happiness when they were asked to report their happiness at a greater frequency each day.

While over-monitoring might be counterproductive, actively paying attention to the positive aspects of our experience is not a bad thing. Savoring, which involves appreciating and enjoying something to the fullest, is a strong predictor of happiness. For example, research has found that when people take a “savoring walk,” mindfully taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of their environment, they report greater happiness. The key difference is that monitoring involves attending to the abstract concept of happiness, whereas savoring involves attending to the present experience.

In summary, pursuing happiness as a goal does not always go as planned, especially when it involves unrealistic standards, quick fixes, and over-analysis. But that doesn’t mean we should just sit back and wait for happiness to show up at our doorstep. Pursuing goals that matter to us for their own sake—independent of their implications for happiness—are more likely to ultimately lead us there.

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Ford, B. Q., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion: When and why wanting to feel happy backfires. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (p. 363–381). Oxford University Press.

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? [corrected] Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815.

Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: The role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 419–435.