Why does overvaluing happiness backfire? We dive into the effects of longing on our everyday outlook.
Like the Buddhist notion of longing, individuals who place a high value on happiness are desperate to be happy. They say things like, “Happiness is extremely important to me,” or “My life is worthwhile to the extent I’m happy,” explains Iris Mauss, PhD, a University of California, Berkeley, associate professor of psychology. Such individuals suffer from a preoccupation with how they feel and always size up their enjoyment, whether it’s throwing a party or planting a garden.
Perhaps not surprisingly, studies by Mauss have shown that putting such a high value on happiness has a number of drawbacks. In a typical experiment, some participants in the lab read a paragraph praising the benefits of happiness before carrying out a series of activities. Other participants read a paragraph lauding accurate judgments. The happiness participants end up placing a higher value on happiness, which in turn makes a positive activity carried out in the lab less enjoyable. The same set of findings also holds up outside of the lab. The more an individual values happiness in their everyday life, the less satisfied and the more depressed he or she is likely to be.
Why does overvaluing happiness backfire?
Maya Tamir, an associate professor of psychology at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and coauthor with Mauss, observes that if our desire to experience an emotion is intense or inflexible it is probably harmful. For example, if you attempt to feel happy in nearly every situation, it’s probably going to cause some problems. In a 2012 study published in the journal Emotion, Tamir and a colleague found that participants who wanted to be happy during a confrontational situation experienced lower emotional well-being compared to those who wanted to be mildly angry.
These results suggest that those who overvalue happiness may have poor psychological adjustment because they expect happiness in a situation in which it isn’t adaptive, such as being dismissed, unfairly represented, or taken advantage of. Putting so much value on happiness also limits our ability to use the whole range of emotions, both positive and negative.
Another consequence of overvaluing happiness is the effect it has on our feelings of connection with others. Pursuing happiness can make one excessively self-focused and draws energies and attentions inward rather than outward. In one study, Mauss and colleagues found that raising the importance of happiness to participants caused them to feel lonelier and to release lower amounts of progesterone, a hormone associated with social connection. Another study of participants’ everyday life found that those who highly valued happiness felt particularly lonely during stressful events. It seems that longing for happiness discourages individuals from seeking support and sharing feelings when times are toughest.
Keep in mind that happiness seekers do have positive experiences. The problem is that they fail to appreciate them. Rather than feeling contented or satisfied when things go well, they feel a twinge of disappointment because they didn’t feel as elated as they had hoped. Such demands cause these individuals to dwell on their happiness, highlighting deficiencies in their feelings and drawing them out of the present moment.
What are the solutions?
Professor Mauss recommends that happiness seekers learn to lower their expectations—to not demand elation and exuberance when contentment and calmness would bring more inner peace. Other experts suggest mindfulness. Numerous studies have shown that those who attend to the present moment without judging their experiences as good or as bad enjoy better emotional and physical health.
Contrary to chasing happiness, focusing on others may also lead to this goal. Stephen Post, PhD, founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has found that two hours per week is the threshold for getting significant happiness benefits from volunteering. Dr. Post cautions that the benefits of volunteering come from a genuine concern for others rather than helping others to help oneself.
Other studies support the idea of turning outward. For example, in one well-known study, participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend on themselves or someone else. At the end of the day, participants who spent money on others, regardless of the amount spent, felt happier. Interestingly, when people are surveyed, most predict that spending more money on themselves will make them happier.
Another adaptive change is in the kind of life goals we pursue. Many studies have found that seeking meaning rather than happiness is associated with greater life satisfaction. Michael Steger, an expert on the study of meaning and an associate professor at Colorado State University, defines meaning as finding a purpose in life and gaining an understanding of who we are. Steger explains that meaning is everywhere. “Be flexible and creative in your pursuits—[whether it’s] live jazz, ghost pepper sushi roulette, or volunteering at Habitat for Humanity. Become more aware of your values and your strengths. Reflect on the situations in which you feel most authentically you, and do what is truly important.”
Seven Pillars of Unhappiness
Those who prize happiness may seem like outliers, a desperate few hoping to fill an inner void, but the importance of happiness is woven into the fabric of American culture. “The pursuit of happiness is mentioned in the United States Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right,” writes Mohsen Joshanloo, a postdoctoral fellow who observes America from Chungbuk National University in South Korea. Although “almost all Western and Eastern people value happiness to a fairly high degree,” explains Joshanloo in a correspondence, “Americans are near the top, if not the top.” Yet, according to the World Values Surveys—a comprehensive world polling process that now spans four decades—America is not among the happiest countries in the world. One reason may have to do with the pursuit itself.
To get a sense of whether you have set yourself up for unhappiness, consider how much you agree with each of the following statements compiled by Iris Mauss and her colleagues. The more you agree, the unhappier you are likely to be.
- How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is.
- If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me.
- I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness.
- I would like to be happier than I generally am.
- Feeling happy is extremely important to me.
- I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy.
- To have a meaningful life, I need to feel happy most of the time.
How “Higher” Values Make Happiness Elusive
The term “materialist,” as sociologists use it, may not mean what you think. Materialists are people who have grown up having to worry about survival needs like hunger. “Postmaterialists” are people who have grown up taking survival needs for granted. Nowadays, more than half of Americans are postmaterialists, which has a significant affect on the pursuit of happiness.
As the renowned University of Michigan sociologist Ronald Inglehart discovered 20 years ago, postmaterialists tend to be richer, better educated, and have more prestigious occupations than materialists, but they’re not happier. Far from being a paradox, this is central to their nature. Taking economic security for granted, they emphasize non-material goals. Moreover, they have such demanding standards for these other aspects of life that they are less satisfied than materialists in the same society. Social media, which infinitely expand our ability to compare ourselves with others, appear to be making this problem worse.
So if striving for happiness is counterproductive, and if the possibility of happiness is getting further out of reach, what are we to do? The Zen answer is to stop striving. Another answer is to strive to reach the top of the “hierarchy of needs” famously identified in the 1950s by psychologist Abraham Maslow. In other words, to become self-actualized (see below). What’s most interesting is that the two paths may actually be
- are realistically oriented
- accept other people for who they are
- are spontaneous in thinking, emotions, and behavior
- are problem-centered rather than self-centered
- need privacy
- are autonomous, independent, and able to remain true to themselves in the face of rejection or unpopularity
- have a continuous freshness of appreciation
- have mystic or oceanic experiences although not necessarily religious
- identify with mankind
- have deep meaningful relationships with a few people
- have a democratic structure and judge people as individuals
- have highly developed ethics
- resist total conformity to culture
Jason Drwal is a freelance writer, blogger, psychologist, and avid practitioner of mindfulness.