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Chasing after happiness will only make you less happy

If you want to be happy, don't go after it. Happiness becomes more elusive the more you search for it, wrote psychologists at the University of Denver in Emotion in 2011.

The happiness paradox
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote about it. The happy people who Mill knew all pursued other things than happiness itself. They were artists, devoted their life to the happiness of others, or pursued higher ideals and found happiness in their active and committed lifestyle.

Despite this, the pursuit of happiness has become an obsession in the 21st century. A veritable happiness industry thrives. Millions of people spend millions on courses, training, self-help books all of which are supposed to bring happiness within reach. If John Stuart Mill was right though, the happiness industry is only making us less happy. The psychologists designed two experiments to see whether this is indeed the case.

Study 1
The researchers got a group of subjects to complete questionnaires on how important and worth pursuing happiness was. They also measured how happy [Psychological Well-Being] and depressive [Depressive Symptoms] the subjects were, and how much life stress they had encountered recently.

If the subjects reported high life stress it made little difference whether they found happiness important or not. But if they had little life stress the situation was different. Subjects who found happiness important became less happy when a small amount of life stress came their way than the subjects who were not happiness hunters.

Chasing after happiness will only make you less happy

Study 2
In another experiment the researchers told a group of subjects first how important happiness is [Valuing Happiness Group], whereas another group was given a neutral message [Control Group]. After that the subjects in both groups were shown an excerpt from a sad film and an excerpt from an upbeat, happy film.

When the researchers then got the subjects to fill out questionnaires on how they were feeling, they discovered that the subjects in both the experimental group and in the placebo group felt down after seeing the sad excerpt and good after seeing the happy excerpt. But the experimental group, who had been told that happiness is important, felt worse than the control group.

Chasing after happiness will only make you less happy

"Our findings point at important directions for future research, exploring a fascinating paradox", the researchers wrote. "Although happiness is regarded as one of the most basic and rational human pursuits, valuing happiness as many people do - can backfire."

"Happiness is generally highly valued. In fact, one might accuse modern-day Westerners to be obsessed with happiness, considering the ever-growing number of psychological and popular-science books examining happiness and how peoplecan increase it. Thus, the finding that highly valuing happiness is associated with negative outcomes has important implications."

"The present findings suggest that further encouraging a mindset to maximize happiness (as some self help books do) may be counterproductive, in that it might increase the extent to which people value happiness, making them more vulnerable to paradoxical effects."

"Conversely, it may be advantageous to encourage people to follow John Stewart Mill's suggestion not to have their mind fixed on their personal happiness. Indeed, decreased valuing of happiness might be one of the active ingredients of acceptance of negative emotional experiences and of acceptance-based therapies which aim to enhance clients' acceptance of the full range of emotions, including negative ones."

Chasing after happiness will only make you less happy

Emotion. 2011 August;11(4):80715.

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