To start with, let’s agree on one thing: we’ll never all agree on exactly what it means to be happy. We’re not going to debate it here, since different things make different people happy. That said, recent research tells us something that might sound odd at first: if you’re obsessed with looking for happiness, you’re not likely to find it.
To rephrase this as advice: if you want to be happy, stop looking for happiness. Don’t believe me? Here’s some evidence to back it up.
Stop complicating your life
Bookstores everywhere are full of books (at least they have a couple of aisles of them) offering more or less difficult and arcane methods for achieving happiness. Harvard and Yale even have courses on what happiness is and how to achieve it.
The United Nations has even decreed a day to celebrate it: March 20 is International Day of Happiness. However, a recent study from the University of California Berkeley concludes that being obsessed with the “mantras” of self-help books leads us to the opposite situation. The more focused we are on the search for happiness and on how to measure it, the less satisfaction we find in life. In fact, the authors of the study explain that sometimes, when we are obsessed with working towards our own happiness, we forget how to enjoy the good times in our lives. That is to say, we can even let our real happiness slip away.
The Berkeley psychologists explain that sometimes studying about how to achieve happiness increases our expectations, making us want to stop and analyze at every moment whether or not we’re happy. The more we think we ought to be happy, the more disappointed we are if our feelings fall short of the bliss we dream of.
Not only that, but when we’re focused on analyzing and measuring our happiness and how to achieve it, we focus too much on ourselves. This in turn means we disconnect from the world around us and cease to appreciate the good things and the people close to us, which then makes us feel more lonely and unhappy.
Don’t worry about how to be happy
Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto has identified another aspect of how the search for happiness can be counterproductive: by focusing on how to achieve a lifetime of happiness, we feel that we never have enough time. For example, we might think that in order to be happy we need to spend a certain fixed number of hours each week with our family. But if we have a lot of work, we can start to feel anxious because we don’t know if we’re going to be able to find all the family time we will “need” in order to be happy. We look to the uncertain future and worry, instead of appreciating the time we do actually spend being happy. Sounds pretty counterproductive, right?
In short, studying a lot about what should make us happy, setting goals for how happy we should be, and insisting on actively pursuing happiness are often not only unhelpful, but downright harmful. However, not all the conclusions of these studies are negative. On the contrary, they include some helpful advice: if you stop trying so hard to be happy, you’re going to find it easier to actually be happy.
This doesn’t mean not thinking about happiness at all; it means analyzing less and enjoying more, living in the present and reflecting on all the good things that happen, instead of those that don’t. In the end, we all know more or less what it is that makes us happy, even if it may be unique to us.
Is the way we seek happiness today self-defeating?
What needs to come first, health or happiness?