“How can I be happier?” is a question I often get. But people who ask this are really pursuing the wrong thing. You can’t “catch” happiness like some sort of drug-induced high or disease.
I don’t think happiness is a good goal to pursue. In fact, I believe that only a fool would pursue happiness… Here’s why.
There’s no doubt that being more happy in your life leads to greater emotional, mental and even physical benefits. People who are happier report feeling less stressed, able to make decisions more clearly, and enjoy better health (although this may also be related to greater self-realization, see for example Miquelon & Vallerand, 2006).
People hear this from news reports and other studies and immediately jump to the obvious question — How can I be more happier in my life?
I completely understand why a person might ask this question. But it’s the wrong question to ask if you want to actually increase your happiness.
Why You Shouldn’t Pursue Happiness as a Goal
It’s a misnomer to think that everyone seeking happiness enjoys similar characteristics. Why wouldn’t we be, since we’re all after the same goal? In an extensive study, researchers Parks et al. (2012) demonstrate that there is no homoeneous group of happiness seekers. They are as diverse as the general population.
Furthermore, they also found that what kinds of happiness exercises people thought might make them happier had little impact on their actual happiness level:
Two very popular activities among users in our data — “goal evaluation and tracking” and “savoring the moment” — were not associated with increased happiness or mood, suggesting that participants may not have made optimal judgments regarding which activities might work best for them.
Indeed, previous research indicates that people are typically poor predictors of how they will be impacted by future positive or negative events (see Wilson & Gilbert, 2003, for a review).
In other words, people stink at picking things that they think will actually make them happier. Reason #1 not to pursue happiness as a goal unto itself.
The second reason is because we’re lousy evaluators at understanding how well we’re progressing toward a particular goal. If you think you’re doing badly reaching a goal — such as increasing happiness in your life — guess what? You’re going to paradoxically feel less happy the more you try (Mauss et al., 2011).
Here’s what those same researchers conclude:
[Our study suggests] that further encouraging a mindset to maximize happiness (as some “self-help” books do) may be counterproductive, in that it might increase the extent to which people value happiness, making them more vulnerable to paradoxical effects.
Conversely, it may be advantageous to encourage people to follow John Stuart Mill’s suggestion not to have their mind fixed on their personal happiness. Indeed, decreased valuing of happiness might be one of the active ingredients of acceptance of negative emotional experiences and of acceptance-based therapies, which aim to enhance clients’ acceptance of the full range of emotions, including negative ones.
The researchers suggested that appreciating and valuing happiness in a different way than most people typically think about it can, however, lead to greater happiness. If you think about it other than as your own personal emotional state — such as increasing positive social engagement — you may still be able to increase your own happiness.
Life is full of ups and downs — that’s normal and balanced. You need those negative experiences — and to accept them — in order to fully appreciate and enjoy the positive experiences of your life. Trying to force more “ups” than “downs” isn’t likely to get you very much other than disappointment. And less happiness.
Instead of pursuing happiness as a goal, pursue the things that make you feel like you’re living a more meaningful and mindful life in this world. Spend more time with your children. Volunteer in your community. Live experiences that are maybe just a little bit outside of your everyday comfort level. Nurture and expand your existing your social connections with your friends and family. Read more, eat less. Exercise regularly.
It is these kinds of things — not some happiness app or self-help book — that will make you happier in the long run.
Mauss, Iris B. Tamir, Maya Anderson, Craig L. Savino, Nicole S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807-815.
Miquelon, P. & Vallerand, RJ. (2006). Goal motives, well-being, and physical health: Happiness and self-realization as psychological resources under challenge. Motivation and Emotion, 30, Special issue: Autonomy, volitional motivation, and wellness. pp. 259-272.
Parks, Acacia C. Della Porta, Matthew D. Pierce, Russell S. Zilca, Ran Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Pursuing happiness in everyday life: The characteristics and behaviors of online happiness seekers. Emotion, 12, 1222-1234.