When the Pursuit of Happiness Backfires

Beware of What You Wish For

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 2.55.28 PMAs psychologists who frequently travel for work, how we describe our careers to strangers in the airline seats next to us can determine the tone of the subsequent conversation for hours to come. For instance, the mere mention that we’re psychologists prompts some people to open a book, don headphones, or pretend to fall asleep. In other cases, our expertise in mental matters seems to encourage our seatmates to unburden themselves. On the few occasions we actually risk the truth and own up to the fact that we’re not just general psychologists but that we actually study happiness for a living, we can be guaranteed a near-desperate response: “What can I do to be happier?” There’s a clear and nearly universal assumption that happiness is desirable and, being so metaphorically shiny, we should all be trying to stockpile it.

Sure, the research on the overall benefits of happiness is growing steadily. One common theory holds that happiness is humanity’s natural resting state. Happy people are more likely to be social, exploratory, inventive, and healthy. It’s a short logical jump from there to the idea that happiness provides an evolutionary advantage. It’s no wonder that happiness is often touted as a panacea. In fact, happiness seems so valuable that it’s sometimes difficult to imagine that it has any downsides.

But the pursuit of happiness often backfires, ending in unhappiness. Let’s say that for months, you’ve been awaiting the release of what promises to be a blockbuster cinema event, the latest film in the epic retelling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Hobbit. You read the book when you were a teenager, and even now you delight in mentions of elves and dwarves. In anticipation of the big event, you’ve kept yourself in a media blackout so that you can experience every delight and surprise the film has to offer. You just know that the movie will be an awesome experience. What’s more, you have an equally geeky friend who’s promised to see the film with you on opening night. She’s been following the production of the movie closely and knows that the director, Peter Jackson, split The Hobbit into three parts, each debuting at the theater one year apart. She also knows that Jackson will be drawing liberally from the book’s arcane appendices to fill out the subplots. Who do you think is going to enjoy the movie more? You or your friend? Do you think your desire to be pleased will lead to more enjoyment, or will her detailed understanding of the many aspects of the film trump that? According to the latest scientific research, your friend is probably going to derive more happiness from the experience, in part because unlike you, she’s not trying to use the film to produce happiness.

Researchers have found that when you enter into a situation with the goal of becoming happier, you actually make that less likely to occur. To test this, Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein randomly gave participants one of four sets of instructions before listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: 1) Try to make yourself as happy as possible when listening, 2) Listen as you normally do, 3) As you listen, move a dial to indicate how happy you feel and how your mood changes, 4) Try to make yourself as happy as possible and keep tabs on how your happiness ebbs and flows while listening (a combination of instructions 1 and 3).

Compared with adults using music as a tactic to become happier (instruction 1), adults instructed to just listen (instruction 2) ended up 4.5 times happier with Stravinsky’s pleasant violins, a 450 percent better return on their investment. Clearly, the strategy of trying to use music as a means to an end backfired. Even more dramatic, people who tried to use music to become happier while also tracking how well they met their happiness goal felt 7.5 times worse than people just listening to the music.

This finding is important because conventional wisdom regarding the pursuit of happiness tells us that people should understand what brings them happiness, create goals that will help with this overarching aim to be happy, and then work toward these goals, tracking the effort put in and progress made. We now have scientific evidence suggesting that this single-minded pursuit of happiness is akin to trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathtub. The more you reach through the water, the more the soap slips away, and the more difficult it is to lay a hand on.

It turns out that people have an intuitive grasp of the function of negative emotions, and sometimes choose these psychological down-states over happiness to achieve a goal. Certain situations call for feelings and behaviors that deviate from the happiness repertoire. Happiness motivates people to be friendly, to be helpful, and to try to connect with other people. Sounds good, except that other people aren’t always on our side. When somebody tries to sabotage you at work, you might want to seek help, creating alliances at meetings to ensure that your ideas aren’t prematurely and unfairly shot down. This means convincing other people and figuring out strategies to neutralize adversaries. Expressions of sadness communicate to others that you’re in trouble and need help; expressions of happiness signal to others that everything is fine. Thus, if your goal is to gain assistance, this is the wrong time to feel happy, express happiness, and minimize the unpleasantness of sadness.

Don’t be mistaken, we are fully aware of the robust and widely confirmed findings on the benefits of positive emotions, positive thoughts, and happiness. In fact, we’ve contributed to the literature. But what’s largely untapped is the potential we can draw from the fact that under certain predictable circumstances, being mildly unhappy seems to be better than being happy. This includes tasks that require detail-oriented, systematic, or analytical thinking, which counts for much of what we do at home (think of budgeting and designing weekend plans) and work (think of completing administrative paperwork and trying to determine trends and patterns from mounds of information). The key word is mildly, for serious unhappiness, in the form of chronic loneliness and emotional disorders, impairs our ability to function, and in the worst-case scenario leads to thoughts of death and suicidal acts. Here, we’re not talking about emotional problems and disorders as hidden gifts.

SeptemberOctober 2014 Issue Available Now
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Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: emotion | emotional disorder | emotional disorders | emotional problem | emotional problems | HEAL | loneliness | psychologist | psychologists | SPECT | suicidal | TED

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