Does Seeking Happiness Actually Make People Sad?

As happiness is an essential component of human life, it is reasonable to think that pursuing happiness is helpful. This observation is, however, contradictory as the more one wants to be happy, the more are the chances for disappointment and thus, the feeling of sadness. One study shows that people who value happiness more, have less chance of getting it. The second study shows that when people are encouraged to be happy, they often try too hard, and are unhappy when they don’t. These responses are obtained in positive situations alone when compared to negative situations.

Some people need happiness constantly, while some are content with occasional doses of happiness. This study attempts to understand if different degrees of  desire for feeling happy affect the chances of being happy. Wanting to be happy should make people work toward that goal, which in turn should make them happy. However, “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.” Also, when one greatly values happiness, and fails to feel it in simple happy occasions, the disappointment plunges them further into unhappiness. All these ideas are tested in the current study.

* Study I evaluates if the value placed on happiness affects one’s happiness in general.  Fifty-nine women were recruited for participation in this study.
* In study I, happiness was equated to an individual’s positive hedonic (a type of feeling that is characterized by pleasure) state. Items were generated by examining scales of emotion-related values and by asking the women to describe their values regarding happiness.
* In study I, stress was measured using the Life Experiences Survey (LES) and subjective well-being was measured with the 5-item Satisfaction with Life Scale.
* In study II, 69 women were recruited and causal effects of happiness values in these women were analyzed.
* In study II, the women were shown a two-minute affectively neutral film clip to neutralize and equate their emotional states. They were randomly assigned to either a control condition or a valuing happiness condition. The women rated on a 1 (none) to 9 (extremely) scale the extent to which they had experienced positive and negative emotions.

* Results of study I showed that valuing happiness is not necessarily linked to greater happiness. However, participants had higher symptoms of depression if their hedonic balance, psychological well-being and life satisfaction were on the lower side.
* Participants in Study 2 who were conditioned into valuing happiness tried harder to feel positive after viewing the sad film. Also, their feelings of well-being were lower than those who were not thus conditioned.
* It has been observed that valuing happiness is not always self-defeating; however, if people are provided the right tools to pursue happiness, they can get greater happiness.

Shortcomings/Next steps
The participants consisted entirely of women residing in the United States, even though tests showed no gender biases in the data. Different cultures have different ways and reasons to feel happy, and all these factors were not considered in this study. The connection between expectations to be happy and disappointment at failure needs more analysis. Social and personal aspects like materialism and belongingness to social groups may affect happiness in participants and should be taken into account.

Putting too much effort into being happy may have the opposite effect on a person’s well-being. If a happy situation does not elicit a positive response from a person who values happiness, this can plunge him/her into depression. Such strong reactions are not observed in unhappy situations. Also, when a person is encouraged to be happy, chances are that he/she will try too hard, and fail, resulting in sadness. Valuing happiness can result in positive experience, if the happiness does not totally depend on personal and emotional responses. Different cultures seem to place different emphases on happiness, resulting in different levels of happiness across cultures.

For More Information:
Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness
Publication Journal: Emotion, April 2011
By Iris Mauss; Maya Tamir; University of Denver, Colorado, Boston College and Hebrew University, Boston, Mass.

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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