Can the pursuit of happiness backfire? New mental health research suggests so

4 Aug ‘22
3 min
Finding purpose
Arianna Freni
happy person jumping
Feeling sadder the more you strive for happiness? A recent study introduces the happiness paradox and explains why obsessively looking for happiness might be the drawback to actually reaching it.  


We all have different desires and ambitions in life. Whether it is a successful career, a strong household and social network, an adventurous lifestyle or a combination thereof, the ultimate goal is simply to be happy. Oddly enough, according to a new study published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, our constant pursuit of happiness is in fact having the opposite effect, making us feel worse. 


What is the study about?  


Psychology researchers Zerwas and Ford, examined how chasing happiness can negatively impact our mental health both in the short and the long term.


Specifically, Zerwas illustrates a study in which one group of participants were shown a fake newspaper article related to happiness as a way of promoting its value. The other group read about a topic unrelated to happiness. All the participants were then shown a film clip. 


Results showed that, after watching the clip, people who were induced to value happiness actually felt less happy compared to people in the other group. 


Where is the pitfall? 


This ‘happiness paradox’ suggests that when we focus too much on our happiness, we can be more easily disappointed by not feeling as happy as we had hoped. In other words, sometimes having lower expectations can work to our advantage and accepting our emotions as they come gives us a much better chance of feeling truly happy.


Re-evaluate your approach


As explained by the researchers, people tend to approach happiness in two different ways:

  • “Aspiring to happiness”,  where happiness is a life goal;


  • “Concern about happiness”,  where worries and concerns about being happy enough overshadow our actual happiness levels;

While the first tendency is relatively harmless, the second gets in the way of achieving happiness as it leads to negative feelings and constant disappointments. 


Furthermore, society often encourages the false notion that happiness must always be present in order to reach well-being. In fact, research indicates otherwise. Accepting every emotion, whether those are positive or negative, can eventually help us to live a more satisfying life and feel overall happier. 


Check out our masterclass about finding everyday happiness: How To Find Everyday Happiness | Masterclass


Let it flow 


If you feel stuck in the loop of a frantic search for happiness, here are some key takeaways from this research that could help:


1. Reframe the strategies you use when pursuing happiness and focus on the positive day-to-day ones. Try to appreciate the small things you have: cherish your environment, the interactions with your loved ones, the colours of nature and the smell of fresh bread. Remind yourself to not take those for granted!


2. Notice your negative feelings and try to avoid any form of judgment towards those emotions. Accept them and watch them as they come and go. 


3. Work with therapists and mental health practitioners who can help you identify the most effective exercises for your specific situation. 


4. Focus on mindfulness to reduce the pressure of finding happiness and learn the value of acceptance towards all of your range of feelings. Curious about practising it together with a psychologist?