Everything we do in life is, at the end of the day, in pursuit of happiness. But trying too hard to be happy could actually keep you from experiencing real satisfaction.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
Too Much Happiness Can Be Bad for You
Happiness — the state of experiencing more positive feelings than negative — feels good, but it’s only one of the many emotions you need to feel as a human. Constant happiness doesn’t allow you to dip into the contemplative thoughts that well up when you’re feeling morose, or allow you to experience the flush of motivational energy you get when you’re angry. Dr. June Gruber explains the costs in an essay published in Perspectives on Psychological Science:
…whereas moderate levels of positive emotions engender more creativity, high levels of positive emotions do not… Furthermore, when experiencing very high degrees of positive emotion, some individuals are inclined to engage in riskier behaviours, such as alcohol consumption, binge eating, and drug use (Cyders & Smith, 2008; L.R. Martin et al., 2002). Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs (2001) noted that individuals with high positive emotion levels may tend to neglect important threats and dangers.
Happiness can turn into a dangerous level of complacency if you don’t strike a balance. Gruber suggests that the association between happiness and beneficial outcomes in your life is nonlinear. That is, more happiness doesn’t necessarily mean a better life. It might sound strange, but there’s a happiness threshold that once crossed can actually make your life worse in one way or another. It’s ok to feel other emotions — to be sad, anxious, or frustrated. It’s actually necessary if you want to avoid trapping yourself in a fishbowl of low motivation, constricted creativity, and risky behaviour. Think of your happiness as a muscle: don’t wear yourself out, save your strength for the right time and flex it when it’s best suited for the situation.
Don’t Hunt for Happiness
Like chasing a wild animal, the faster you run toward happiness, the faster it may run from you. A good hunter knows that it’s often better to lie in wait.The more you want happiness the more likely you are to mismanage your expectations and overcompensate by trying to be happy when you’re already doing something that can make you happy. We’ve touched on the science of why pursuing happiness doesn’t always work, but B. Mauss, Ph.D., explains in a study published in the journal Emotion:
At first glance, valuing happiness should lead to positive outcomes, because it is assumed that the more one values happiness the happier one will be… in the case of happiness, this feature of goal pursuit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one’s evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with one’s goal (i.e., happiness) (cf. Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein, 2003). This reasoning leads to a counterintuitive hypothesis: People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.
An example of this paradoxical effect in action is someone who wants straight As. They study for hours and hours and end up severely disappointed when they get one B+. Most people would still consider their grades to be good, but they set such high expectations for themselves that anything short of perfection is bad.
The same thing can happen with your happiness. Even if you’re already doing something you enjoy, focusing too hard on “being happy” will lead to disappointment. The less you try to be happy, the more likely you’ll get it by doing things you like. In a way, happiness is a feather slowly floating down from above. If you reach out to try and catch it, the feather will swirl away. But if you watch it and let it float down into your hand, you can finally grasp it.
Happiness Shouldn’t Mean Achievement
Sometimes the pursuit of happiness can be masked by other things in your life. When you achieve something, it’s hard not to feel happy. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your wins, of course, but there’s a big difference between celebration and making your achievements the crux of your happiness. When your outlook on life is wrapped up in your personal success, it can backfire in a big way down the line.
Pride-that great feeling you get when you accomplish something — is such a strong source of happiness for most people that it can lead you to believe it’s the only way you can become happy. After all, achievement leads to success and success leads to happiness, right? Gruber suggests, however, that pride actually ends up making you selfish. Too much pride leads to aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behaviour, and an increased risk of mood disorders. You might think you’re chasing happiness, but pride and self-achievement can make you care less about the people in your life, and ultimately make you feel lonely. In another psychological study published in Emotion, Iris B. Mauss, Ph.D., explains:
Valuing personal outcomes and focusing on the self might come at the expense of connection with others. For example, people who strive for high self-esteem often fail to attend to others’ needs (Crocker & Park, 2004), and achievement goals can cause people to disregard others’ feelings (Bargh & Barndollar, 1996). Like people who value self-esteem or success, then, people who value happiness might experience decreased social connection and ultimately loneliness.
Furthermore, Mauss notes that using achievement as a marker for happiness can lead to a greater feeling of failure when things don’t work out. You may set loftier goals with each new success until you couldn’t possibly live up to your own standards. Failure can already be tough to stomach, but when your happiness is based on your success rate, one misstep often leads you to question your self-worth.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, suggests that finding a way to enjoy the process of pursuing your achievements is far more important than relishing your accomplishment itself. Psychologists call this a “growth-mindset,” and it’s about focusing on the process instead of the endgame. So, go ahead and celebrate your accomplishments, but remember that real happiness comes from enjoying how you got there.
Let Happiness Come Naturally With the “Little Things”
Worrying yourself over having a happy life only leads to a life full of worrying. Focusing on the big picture is not only daunting, but it’s hardly actionable. Your life is comprised of all the little things we experience every day, and knowing how to find joy in some of those little things is one of the easiest ways to let happiness slowly fill your cup. In order for that to happen, you need to do two very simple things: put yourself in situations where you can experience happiness, and then find a way to savour the experience and let it sink into you.
To put yourself in the position of experiencing happiness everyday, Lahna Catalino, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, recommends an approach called “prioritising positivity”:
…deliberately organising your day-to-day life so that it contains situations that naturally give rise to positive emotions. This way of pursuing happiness involves carving out time in your daily routine to do things that you genuinely love, whether it be writing, gardening, or connecting with loved ones. Prioritising positivity also involves heavily weighing the positive emotional consequences of major life decisions, like taking a new job, which have implications for the daily situations in which you will regularly find yourself. This way of pursuing happiness means proactively putting yourself in contexts that spontaneously trigger positive emotions.
You may not know what will bring you the most satisfaction in your life (few people actually do), but you’re bound to at least know of a few simple things that regularly make you feel some amounts of happiness. Give yourself time with those little things every day. Once you do that, psychologist Rick Hanson, the author of Buddha’s Brain, explains how to take the small amount of happiness you feel from something little and let it carry over to your overall life satisfaction:
- Let a good fact become a good experience. Often we go through life and some good thing happens — a little thing, like we checked off an item on our To Do list, we survived another day at work, the flowers are blooming, and so forth. Hey, this is an opportunity to feel good. Don’t leave money lying on the table: Recognise that this is an opportunity to let yourself truly feel good.
- Really savour this positive experience. Practice what any school teacher knows: If you want to help people learn something, make it as intense as possible — in this case, as felt in the body as possible — for as long as possible.
- Finally, as you sink into this experience, sense your intent that this experience is sinking into you. Sometimes people do this through visualisation, like by perceiving a golden light coming into themselves or a soothing balm inside themselves. You might imagine a jewel going into the treasure chest in your heart — or just know that this experience is sinking into you, becoming a resource you can take with you wherever you go.
It might seem a little cliche to say “stop and smell the roses,” but it’s moments like those that can be stored in your happiness bank and withdrawn later. If you’re enjoying something, let yourself go and get as much as you can from it. Something as simple as finding a way to show gratitude can be a moment you savour and carry with you for a long time to come. In a roundabout way, living a happy life can be as simple as accepting the happiness that’s already around you. If you want more, it’s ok to go out and achieve it, but don’t forget where happiness really comes from.