I Just Want to be Happy!

“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.”**

Another one of those paradoxes I find fascinating.

The APA journal, Emotion, published a study done by four researchers whose theory was that “…valuing happiness could be self-defeating,” based on the premise that the more we seek after a subjectively qualified and often unquantifiable experience, the more likely we are to be disappointed.  In one situation, it takes little to produce a feeling of happiness, but in another situation when we expected to feel happy, the sense of well-being or contentment was less than we anticipated, and thus rather than happy, we feel disappointed. In other words, we constantly unconsciously adjust the standard by which we measure the thing we are seeking – in this case, happiness – resulting in exactly the opposite.


I see this quite often in my clients. Not necessarily the pursuit of happiness per se, but the habit of striving for ephemeral, unquantifiable goals, and living with a chronic sense of disappointment. It seems that a great many of the “I’m depressed” clients I encounter in counselling sessions are the result of having “moving goal posts.” In other words, a measuring stick that is relative to a situation, not to an absolute. The end result is a constant weighing and measuring of every situation, experience, or emotion to see if it fits the criteria for happiness… satisfaction… accomplishment… whatever. The researchers point out, “People who value academic achievement are more likely to feel disappointed if they get a low grade in an easy class, compared to a hard one.” The outcome is the same – a low grade – but the response to this event is dependent on the perception of the student. If the low grade can be explained or rationalised by the perceived difficulty of the class, then disappointment is less, and the emotion experienced might actually be satisfaction in not failing. The key is that though the result is the same (a low grade) the student is able to rationalise the outcome in a satisfactory way (move the goal posts) and thus experiences a sense of relief or satisfaction, rather than disappointment. When this (rationalising) cannot be done, the result is disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Comparatively, one does not expect to feel happiness upon hearing bad news, and so there is no sense of disappointment. If one expects to feel happy at a party, and the feeling of happiness is less than anticipated, not only is there no happiness, there is disappointment and the emotional sense of well-being is reduced or eliminated. Placing a premium on pursuing happiness as a measure of quality of life was strongly correlated with less positive emotions, lower sense of well-being, less satisfaction with life, and more symptoms of depression.

Why does this matter?

Because we are whole beings with a huge repertoire of emotions, both positive and negative. When we value only those experiences that feel good, we become less whole; less able to bear witness or to be present for those events and circumstances of life which are inevitably negative.  The final summary of the study bears repeating in its entirety.

The present findings suggest that further encouraging a mindset to maximise happiness (as some “self-help” books do) may be counterproductive, in that it might increase the extent to which people value happiness, making them more vulnerable to paradoxical effects. Conversely, it may be advantageous to encourage people to follow John Stuart Mill’s suggestion not to have their mind fixed on their own personal happiness. Indeed, decreased valuing of happiness might be one of the active ingredients of acceptance of negative emotional experiences (Roemer, Salters, Raffa, & Orsillo, 2005; Troy, Boland, & Mauss, 2010) and of acceptance-based therapies (Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, 1999) which aim to enhance clients’ acceptance of the full range of emotions, including negative ones.

I  had the privilege of attending a conference in Bosnia this year at which Dr. Kelly Wilson presented a keynote and several master classes on acceptance-based therapies. I find the idea of helping a client to accept and live through the full range of human emotions to be much more palatable professionally than inducing the client to seek after happiness as an end goal.

“In summary,” the study states, “the more people value happiness, the less likely they may be to obtain it, especially when happiness appears within reach.” 

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” ~ Albert Camus

**Mauss, Iris B., Tamir, Maya, Anderson, Craig L., Savino, Nicole S. Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness; Emotion 2011, Vol. 11 No 4, 807-815

2 Comments on “I Just Want to be Happy!

  1. Happiness by definition is a pursuit not a goal. The purpose of a pursuit is not necessarily the attainment of the goal – after all- when the fox is caught, the hunt is over. Even when the hunters gallop across the countryside all day without a smell of their quarry, they’ll ride home having enjoyed themselves.

    • Indeed. Unfortunately, convincing someone that happiness is not a >>goal<< is somewhat difficult when the prevailing belief is, "I must be happy to have any quality of life," or even worse, "It's my right to be happy and I am disappointed with [fill in the blank] because it/she/he/they is preventing me from being happy."

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