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Can the Pursuit of Happiness Make You Unhappy?

2011 September 21
by Eric Horowitz

When you place a high value on a goal, suffering a setback is bound to make you unhappy. For example, if you really want to win your intramural kickball league, losing a game will make you sad. However, that unhappiness won’t necessarily make it more difficult to achieve your goal. After losing a game you can still practice hard and win the league.

But what happens when your goal is to be happy? In a new paper Iris Mauss and her colleagues explain why this is such a tricky situation.

In the case of happiness, this feature of goal pursuit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one’s evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with one’s goal (i.e., happiness) (cf. Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein, 2003). This reasoning leads to a counterintuitive hypothesis: 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.

In other words, although feeling bad about losing a kickball game doesn’t mean you have failed to achieve your goal of wining the league, feeling sad about not being happy does in fact mean you have failed to achieve your goal of being happy. The recognition of this failure then leads to even more unhappiness.

Mauss and her colleagues hypothesized that that negative effects of valuing happiness are most likely to occur in situations where people feel they should be happy. In a bad situation, people can attribute their unhappiness to the negative circumstances rather than a personal failure to be happy. But in a situation where people feel that they should be happy, any lack of perceived happiness is likely to make them extremely disappointed.

To test their hypothesis the researchers conducted an experiment in which half the participants were primed to value happiness by reading an article that extolled the virtues of being happy. The remaining participants read an article about making judgments.  Half of each group was then shown a film clip designed to induce sadness, while the other half was shown a film clip designed to induce happiness. The researchers hypothesized that although there would be no differences among those who watched the sad clip, the participants watching the happy clip who valued happiness would be less happy than those who did not value happiness. In the end, this is exactly what happened.

The findings don’t necessarily mean the pursuit happiness will always make you unhappy, but they are a good warning not to put too much stock in your minute-to-minute emotional state.

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Mauss IB, Tamir M, Anderson CL, & Savino NS (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11 (4), 807-15 PMID: 21517168

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