• Health

The happiness paradox: wanting to be happy may make you unhappy, studies find

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” -John Stuart Mill, 1873

New research suggests that the pursuit of happiness may not have its intended effect: the desire to be happy actually makes you less happy.

As entrepreneurs, we deal with a lot of stress: dry periods, client issues, marketing, etc. But we’re also a group that is very interested in finding happiness -- in fact, this is often why we stepped out to work on our own in the first place. Are we pursuing happiness in the right way?

This research comes from the fantastic chapter “The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion” by Brett Q. Ford and Iris B. Mauss, in the book The Dark Side: When Positive Emotion Goes Wrong.

Americans really want to be happy.

We live in a culture that is almost obsessed with happiness, Ford and Mauss claim. Western culture is especially focused on happiness. Just stop by the non-fiction section of any bookstore and you’ll see how much Americans not only crave happiness, but work and study hard to achieve it.

Why? It’s obvious: experiencing happiness feels good, leads to improved social outcomes, and even makes you healthier. We also have an idea that we should be happy; that if we’re not happy all the time, there’s something wrong with us.

Why does “I should be happy right now” not work?

1. High expectations make us unhappy.

  • Listen to this experiment: There were 2 groups of participants. The first group was asked to read an article about the advantages of happiness, and the second was asked to read an article not mentioning happiness. Then both groups were shown a happy film clip. The first group were less happy at the end of the movie than the second group. (Mauss, Tamir, et al. 2011)
  • In another study, people who planned big parties and had a lot of expectations about the fun they were going to have on New Years Eve reported being less happy two months after New Years than those who had no plans. (Schooler et al. 2003)

What do these studies show? Our high expectations for future happiness and the desire for a certain outcome makes us less happy.

2. We don’t actually know what makes us happy.

  • Many people believe that spending money will make them happier. However, research suggests that people who spend money on themselves are less happy than people who spend money on others (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008).
  • When people engage in activities just to make themselves happier, they lose the actual value of the activity. People who invest in experiences that are happy in and of themselves (fulfilling activities, making art, for example) are happier than people who invest in means-to-an-end (making money to get more happiness later).

What do these studies show? People have little knowledge of what actually makes them happy, and often work to achieve future happiness in unfulfilling ways.

3. Monitoring our feelings makes us unhappy.

  • People asked to think about why a joke is funny found the joke less funny than if they weren’t asked to think about it (Cupchik & Leventhal, 1974).
  • People asked to think about their reasons for choosing one product over another were less satisfied with their choice than people who did not introspect about their reasons (Wilson et al. 1993).
  • Participants who were asked to monitor their happiness while listening to music were less happy than those asked to simply listen to the music (Schooler et al. 2003).

What do these studies show? Monitoring our happiness makes us less happy. “Meta-awareness” of your feelings changes your feelings (for the worse).

What do you think about these studies? Can you confirm this is true in your own experience?