Column Editor: Connie Mester, MPH
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The unhappiness of not being happy. Does this constant pursuit of happiness make us unhappy?
In Part 1, we learned how being happy has positive impacts to our health and longevity. One might translate that fact into thinking we should be in constant pursuit of happiness. Should we be focused on happiness all of the time? Can we buy more happiness or could we be doing more harm than good by endlessly trying to weave happiness into every ounce of our lives? We will investigate below. In future articles we will explore how our digitally connected mobile and media infused world has impacted our happiness level. Finally, we will conclude by discovering ways that individuals can cultivate character strengths and build traits that realistically align with their personality and lifestyle to help us attain a healthy dose of happiness and enrich our lives.
Should we be focused on happiness all of the time?
As we explored in Part 1, being optimistic has benefits. Positive emotions encourage cooperation, stimulate action, and motivate us to reach our goals. However, staying focused only on the positive has negative consequences too. If we set unrealistic expectations that our life is meant to be an endless amount of bliss, we will be doomed to disappointment. It is not possible or healthy to experience happiness all of the time, for several reasons.
Just as you wouldn’t want to feel miserable, gloomy, annoyed, or outraged every day, being cheerful and joyful every moment isn’t positive either. 1 Expecting all life events to feel good isn’t realistic. This narrowed view could misguide your expectations and leave you deeply disappointed, even in the midst of a joyful experience. Pleasure only gives us a temporary boost in happiness. Further, happiness, at all cost, can lead to depression. 2
Striving for excessive pleasure all of the time could influence you to engage in risky behaviors to achieve continued happiness. This selfish, egotistical focus on your happiness might make you inflexible in the face of a new challenge. 3 Some situations require you to make sacrifices, adapt your mindset, and to contribute to the greater good.
By only focusing on the positive, you might disregard threats that may be critical. Wearing rose colored glasses all of the time might cause you to ignore warning signs when the time comes to plan around a challenge. 4
Negative emotions are an inevitable part of life and teach us it might be time for a change. Feelings of fear or jealousy can signal an unhealthy relationship, one that should be avoided. Anger can help us learn to reconcile conflicts and practice forgiveness, as actions like forgiveness can have a direct impact on our health and the health of our communities. 5 Stress is our body’s fight-or-flight reaction to a challenge. People who ignore or suppress this natural response can hurt their health, whereas someone who works to overcome obstacles builds resilience and improves their quality of life. By recognizing negative recurring themes, you can change your actions and eliminate damaging triggers. If you just pretend to be happy through those tough times, you could create a cycle of repeated events instead of working through ways to make the situation better.
Happiness is not appropriate in every situation. Being ecstatic and skipping into the funeral of a beloved friend who just lost a battle with cancer is not a normal reaction. Being sad and mourning the loss would be more typical. Our emotional responses to life events are there for a reason and teach us something. The important lesson is to not fake happiness in the midst of pain, but to make the choice to be mindful and allow experiences to strengthen you.
Image 1: Balancing Act: The positive and negative to the emotion, context, amount, and reason for happiness.
A negative life event doesn’t subtract from your ability to have a positive life. If fact, our ability to recover from things that hurt us happens quicker than we expect, whereas we quickly adopt to those things that we think will bring us eternal bliss. 6
Does a constant pursuit of happiness make us unhappy?
Research has revealed the more you try to force happiness the more you push it away. 7 Prioritizing positivity is worthwhile; however, an overzealous or obsessive pursuit of reaching an optimal emotional state can make happiness harder to reach. 8 Those devoting their lives to what matters, as opposed to those on the unrealistic quest to be happy all of the time, have a greater chance of feeling joy and appreciating life events, the good and the bad.
Another angle to consider as we think about the quest of a happy life is what we are living for, a life that is satisfying vs. experiences that are satisfying. Understanding the difference between eudaimonic vs hedonic happiness might help. Eudaimonic happiness is feeling your life has meaning and purpose, and your experiences allow you to learn, grow, and reach your full potential. Whereas, hedonic happiness is pleasure or feeling good in the moment, reaching a goal, and feeling temporarily satisfied. 9
Image 2: Eudaimonic v/s Hedonic Happiness = Fulfilling life versus Happy Moments
Part 1 uncovered that much of our happiness is permanently fixed by factors out of our control. And research by Lebowitz and colleagues reveals that even after a delightful experience that elevates our happiness, we inevitably go back to our baseline level of happiness. The happiness boost we experience with the purchase of a new car or the excitement over a recent raise is temporary. No matter how amazing the positive event is that produces the gain in happiness, we quickly get used to it and go back to our baseline. This concept, hedonic adaptation, states that any delight we gain during incremental happy moments subsides as we adapt to life’s ups and downs. 10 So perhaps we might be better served by positively pursuing our purpose and strive to live a fulfilling life, experiencing the up and down emotions along the way vs. savoring isolated events that make a temporary impact.
Image 3: Hedonic Adaptation – The ups and downs of life.
Can you increase your happiness with money/can you buy happiness?
Research has revealed time and time again that the relationship between money and happiness is limited. 11 Since the 1950s people’s happiness levels have been remarkably constant, despite increases in income. In fact, the wealth in the United States has doubled between 1957 and 1995, but the happiness levels haven’t changed. 12 Further research shows the wealthiest people in the U.S. were less happy. 13
There is extensive research documenting that money matters up to a threshold; however, once the annual income of about $75,000 is reached, happiness plateaus and earning an even greater salary doesn’t impact our life satisfaction as much as we might think. 14 Certainly lifting a person out of poverty, where they have the ability to live a comfortable life with basic needs like a home, food, proper education, and healthcare met, reduces or eliminates possible nutritional deficiencies in addition to the stress of wondering where your next meal may come from. But happiness doesn’t go up by just attaining more money. 15
Think about how people rearrange their lives in the pursuit of a larger salary. They uproot themselves from their comfortable, supportive community, endure long commutes, long working hours, and long distance relationships, even though research has shown these all actually deteriorate your happiness and health. 16
Many have recognized wealth doesn’t guarantee more happiness, the accumulation of things doesn’t make you happier, and retail therapy isn’t a positive psychological intervention. The instant gratification of a purchase might bring immediate satisfaction, yet after the pleasure subsides you are left feeling unfulfilled or stressed about the purchase. Similarly, a recent study compared people who spent their money on stuff versus people who spent money on experiences and found that people who put their money towards experiencing moments in life over materialism felt more happiness. 17
A few corporations are starting to acknowledge that compensation is one of the lower ranking factors that contribute to employees’ satisfaction and happiness at work. 18 Recognition, collaborative team experiences, a positive work environment, and time off to enjoy holistic life experiences have greater importance for most and are now becoming the norm for comprehensive career packages.
So you see, we aren’t doomed to fail at the pursuit of happiness, as long as the pursuit is in moderation, in the right context, and with the acceptance that positive and negative emotions and situations are part of life. The question we should be asking is “Are we chasing the wrong thing and can the one-size-fits-all happiness improvement tricks popular in our culture now provide the answer?”
Before discovering our own path to fulfillment, we will explore how our digitally connected world impacts our happiness and well-being. And in the last article in the series we will uncover skills and traits we can strengthen to achieve a happier state of mind. Finally, we will consider the shift from happiness to fulfillment to enhance our quality of life, as simply feeling good is not enough, people need meaning to thrive.
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- Ford BQ, Shallcross AJ, Mauss IB, Floerke VA, and Gruber J. Desperately seeking happiness: Valuing happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnosis of depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 2014;33(10):890-905. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.10.890.
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- McCullough ME. (2001) Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It? Association of Psychological Science. Vol 10 No 6 Volume: 10 issue: 6, page(s): 194-197. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00147
- Gilbert D. (2006) Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers.
- Mauss IB, Tamir M, Anderson CL, and Savino NS. (2011) Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness. Emotion (Washington, DC). 2011; 11(4):807-815. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0022010.
- Catalino LI, Algoe SB, and Fredrickson BL. Emotion. (2014) Prioritizing positivity: An effective approach to pursuing happiness? Vol 14(6), Dec 2014, 1155-1161. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038029
- Taquet M,Quoidbach J, de Montjoye YA, Desseilles M and Gross JJ. (2016). Hedonism and the choice of everyday activities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(35), 9769–9773. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1519998113
- Frederick S and Loewenstein G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener an N. Schwartz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 302-329). New York: Russell Sage.
- Diener E and Biswas-Diener R. (2002) Will Money Increase Subjective Well-being? Social Indicators Research, 57, 119-169.
- Halweil B and Mastny L (2004) State of the World 2004: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, Linda Starke, Editor (N.Y., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.), http://ecweb.elthamcollege.vic.edu.au/snrlibrary/resources/subjects/geography/world_watch_institute/pdf/ESW040.pdf, Figure 8-1, p 166
- Myers DG (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, 56-67. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.56
- Kahneman, D, and A Deaton. (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (38): 16489-16493.
- Kahneman D, Diener E, and Schwarz N. (1999) Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Besser LM, Marcus M, and Frumkin H. (2008) Commute Time and Social Capital in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol 34, No. 3, pp. 207-211.
- Lowery G (March 31, 2010) Glee from buying objects wanes, while joy of buying experiences keeps growing http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2010/03/study-shows-experiences-are-better-possessions
- The Indeed Job Happiness Index 2016: Ranking the World of Employee Satisfaction. What makes us happy at work? http://blog.indeed.com/hiring-lab/indeed-job-happiness-index-2016/