Experts: To be happy, stop trying
STOP TRYING: Rather than trying so hard to attain happiness, relax, it might bring you a smile. (Photo: Martin Novak/Dreamstime)
Among women who reported lower stress levels, those who valued happiness more reported being less happy and had an average of 17 symptoms of depression versus four for low-stress women who valued happiness less. Regardless of the value placed on happiness, the high-stress women showed no significant differences in their happiness levels.
Participants then watched either a happy or sad film clip.
Why we're not happy
For one, they might set higher goals for themselves.
"When people want to be happy, they set higher standards by which they're more likely to fall short," Mauss said. "This, in turn, may lead to greater discontent, in turn lowering levels of happiness and well-being."
Second, it might be that an emphasis on personal happiness leads someone to neglect relationships with friends and family.
"It might have negative social effects," Mauss said. "If you want to be happy, you may be more likely to focus on yourself, and so that can have negative effects on your social networks and your social connections."
Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that while more research is needed to verify the study's findings, it gives more evidence to the idea that setting happiness itself as a goal can be self-defeating.
"One reason why people are vulnerable when they explicitly emphasize the pursuit of happiness is that they set themselves up for disappointment," said Schooler, who was not involved in the study.
If you want to be happy, the happiness itself can be fleeting, Schooler said. "How certain are you that you are really as happy as you hoped you could be? [Happiness] doesn’t have a straightforward marker to let you know you've accomplished it. Because of that, it could be more elusive."
At this point, Schooler said, some follow-up should focus on how to set goals that may result in happiness. "This is really a fledgling area of inquiry," he said. "We really need more studies to nail down ... how can you achieve happiness without incurring these negative consequences?"
She said there were some methods that may ultimately help people achieve happiness without the negative effects that accompany its pursuit.
One way, she said, may be for people to learn to engage their emotions by doing activities they enjoy, while taking the focus off the goal of happiness itself.
“One of the most effective ways to actually increase happiness is to engage in activities, which basically entails pursuing happiness in an indirect and non-effortful manner,” Mauss said.
Another is to change the type of happiness one pursues.
"For instance, making other people happy might be a good definition of happiness," Mauss said. "We hypothesize that if you don’t have a person-based, hedonic version of happiness, but rather a definition of happiness that is based in altruism or social connections, pursuing that kind of happiness may not have negative, self-defeating effects."
"Making ourselves happy is a very important issue," Schooler said. "But I think we should be cautious in dramatically changing our goals and aspirations on the basis of it. This is the kind of work that needs to be carefully replicated and pursued in a variety of different ways before we rely too heavily on this and a few other studies to change our behaviors."
The paper, written by researchers at the University of Denver, Boston College, Hebrew University and the University of California, Berkeley, was published online in the journal Emotion and will be detailed in a forthcoming print issue of the journal.