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Does Striving for Happiness Sabotage Our Chance of Having It? What Two Studies Show

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My goal has been to bring to you the latest research findings on the science of happiness, with the assumption that we should implement as many of these findings into our daily lives as possible. Isn't striving for happiness always good? It is, after all, an inalienable right...right?

Maybe not.

A new research study by Iris Mauss and colleagues at the University of Denver (in press at the journal Emotion) suggests that in certain situations, actively seeking happiness may backfire and make people unhappy.

How Could This Be?

The researchers argue that while we all appreciate being happy, some people invest a great deal of time and energy pursuing happiness, and that this in itself may undermine our efforts at actually being happy.

If you spend a lot of time and energy chasing happiness, you are more likely to be disappointed when your efforts fail. You also may be more likely to routinely compare your level of happiness with some high standard of how happy you think you should be.

Show Me the Research
In their first of two studies, Mauss and colleagues set out to discover whether the first assumption in their theory is correct: Do people who value happiness highly actually feel less happy when things are going well?

They invited women from the community to come into the laboratory and report their levels of valuing happiness (do you constantly seek it or do you go with the flow?), emotional context (your general level of stress in the last 18 months), and psychological functioning (ratio of positive to negative moods in daily life, general well-being, and level of depressive symptoms).

As they predicted, when life stress was low, the greater extent to which these women valued happiness, the worse off they were on every measure. When life stress was high and no one expected to be happy, this association no longer held (hard to be bummed over a hangnail when your house is on fire).

But Does Valuing Happiness CAUSE less happiness in positive circumstances?

In their second study, these researchers asked participants to read a newspaper article. One group was given an article that identified happiness as a crucial contributor to all forms of psychological health. The other group got the same article, except all the references to happiness were replaced with making accurate judgments. Then each group viewed a happy film clip and then a sad one.

Here's what they found: The participants who were led to believe that happiness is vitally important to well-being took less pleasure in the positive film clip than the other group. They couldn't extract as much happiness from the positive clip, perhaps because they were busy intellectualizing how important it was to be happy and comparing their reaction to the clip with how happy they thought they should be (ironic, isn't it?).

Where Does That Leave Us?

In sum, both of these studies suggest that if we put too high a value on being happy, we might actually cause ourselves to be less happy. Does this mean we should stop striving?

Yes and no. This research suggests that the key here is the disappointment at not feeling as happy as you could feel.

Bottom line: Constantly evaluating your current state of happiness (Am I happy now? How about now?) or comparing yourself to some gold standard of bliss (Am I as happy as I could be?), is going to ultimately make you less happy than if you allow yourself to live in the moment by keeping your life full of activities that keep you engaged and happy, by letting yourself relax--and letting happiness come where it may.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.

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