Chasing happiness


Lately it seems every time I turn around there's a new article or YouTube video about how to become happier. It's widely reported that "happiness classes" are the most popular courses on many college campuses, with enrollments topping 1,000 students per class at some universities.

Some say that our fascination with happiness reveals how stressed out and unhappy we are. We're drawn to finding out the "Seven Concrete Steps to a Happy Life" because we're depressed and anxious-a reflection of our times.

Possibly, but it also might be because as a culture we're obsessed with the idea of finding something that makes us happy and keeps us that way. Americans rate "happy" and "joyous" emotions as having a higher value than "calm" and "peaceful." And because we value them we're always chasing them and trying very hard to keep them around.

The Backfiring Effect of Trying to be Happy

A recent study found something surprising about people who put a high priority on being happy: they tend to be less happy than people who value it less, particularly in positive emotional contexts. In other words, when we're in a situation that makes us happy, if we really value and expect high levels of happiness, we're kind of disappointed that we're not happier.

I noticed this recently when I was gathering a bunch of my closest friends for a special outing. I was so excited and had very high expectations that it was going to be an incredibly special day. 

It really was a special day. Not surprisingly, though, my expectations about how happy I was going to feel ended up dampening my experience - I kept checking to see if I was over-the-moon happy. I have to admit that since I was just averagely happy, I felt a little disappointed.

The Difference Between Trying and Observing

It might be tempting to conclude from this study that there is nothing we can do to increase our happiness because the very act of valuing happiness can derail it, but all is not lost. There are multiple ways to improve overall well-being that don't involve the direct pursuit of higher levels of happiness.

One key way to improve well-being is to consciously experience all of our emotions. Mindfully accepting and experiencing emotions, whether positive or negative, is a great way to get out of the trap of always trying to be happy and experience a broader range of emotions, including happiness, when it comes along.

Another way we can improve how we go through our day is to shift our attention or perspective, and intentionally take note of good things when they happen.

Biased Toward the Negative

Humans are pre-loaded with a "negativity bias" - the tendency to place more importance on and have a stronger emotional response to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. It's thought that this negativity bias was evolutionarily advantageous because humans who react strongly to possible threats are more likely to survive and have their genes passed down than those who don't.

A negativity bias may be keeping our genes in the gene pool, but it also contributes to our current stress. We're programmed to pay way more attention to the things that bother us than the positive experiences we have.

I recently texted a friend to ask how her day was going and she texted back Worst. Day. Ever. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was having an awful day because she found a scratch on the screen of her new phone.

As we continued to chat, she described a bunch of great things that had also happened that day – she was asked out by a guy she really liked, she received a gift from a co-worker, and she found out she had a clean bill of health after waiting on some important test results.

When I pointed out that it might not be the worst day ever if all these great things happened, she admitted that she hadn't even noticed the good things, because she'd been so focused on the bad one.

The Power of Three Good Things

My friend was not alone. When researchers studied will the effect of trying to counter the negativity bias by having study participants write down three good things that happened to them at the end of each day (as well as what caused them) for one week, they found something pretty amazing. This small intervention had a significant effect on how happy participants rated themselves - even when researchers assessed their happiness six months later. Noticing the things that make you happy - and why - tends to be an effective way to increase how happy you are overall.

But wait, didn't I just suggest you avoid trying to be happy?

Yes. Confusing, huh? 

The key to understanding the research in this area is to pay attention to your goals and what else is going on around you.

If you're attempting to do something in order to be happy, it's not likely to be successful. If you're open to noticing more of what happens in your day, being aware that you're likely to under-note the positive and over-note the negative, then you may find there are many experiences you are already having in your day that make you, well… happier.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Jennifer Gregg, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at San Jose State University and a clinical psychologist who researches, delivers, and trains acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence-based mindfulness interventions with difficult populations. She is co-author of The Diabetes Lifestyle Book.