LLike many teenagers, I was once plagued with anguish and dissatisfaction, feelings my parents often found bewilderment rather than sympathy. They were now 50 years old and, having grown up in post-war Britain, they struggled to understand the sources of my discontent in the early 21st century.
“The problem with your generation is that you always hope to be happy,” my mother once said. I was puzzled. Happiness was surely the purpose of living, and we should strive for it at every opportunity. I just wasn’t ready to accept my blues as something that was out of my control.
The growing body of literature on wellness would seem to suggest that many others share my point of view. However, as a writer covering the latest research, I have noticed a shift in thinking and am now coming to the conclusion that my mother’s judgment was correct. Over the past 10 years, numerous studies have shown that our obsession with happiness and high personal confidence may be causing Less happy with our lives and less effective in reaching our real goals. In fact, we can often be happier when we stop focusing on happiness altogether.
Let’s first consider the counterintuitive ways in which the conscious pursuit of happiness can influence our moods, starting with a study by Iris Mauss at the University of California, Berkeley. Participants were first asked to rate how well they agreed with a series of statements such as: “I value things in life only insofar as they influence my personal happiness” and “I am concerned about my happiness even when I I feel happy. ” . People who scored high should have been seizing each day for their last drop of joy, yet Mauss found that they tended to be less satisfied with their everyday lives and were more likely to have depressive symptoms even during times of relatively low stress.
Several factors may have caused that link, of course, but a second study suggested a strong causal connection. In this experiment, Mauss asked half of the participants to read a paragraph that outlined the benefits of feeling good, and then asked them to watch a feel-good movie about a professional figure skater. Far from enhancing their enjoyment of the inspiring story, the focus on their own happiness had muted their joy, compared to the second group of participants, who had been given a dry article to read about the importance of rational judgment.
These findings have now been replicated many times, with many more experiments revealing a dark side to the pursuit of happiness. In addition to reducing daily satisfaction, the constant desire to feel happier can make people feel lonelier. We are so absorbed in our own well-being that we forget about the people around us, and we may even feel resentful of them, without realizing it, for making us feel bad or distracting us from more “important” goals.
The pursuit of happiness can even have strange effects on our perception of time, as the constant “fear of missing something” reminds us how short our lives are and how much time to spend on less-than-exciting activities. In 2018, researchers at the University of Toronto found that simply encouraging people to feel happier while watching a relatively boring movie meant that were more likely to support the claim “time is slipping away from me”. The same thing happened when participants were asked to list 10 activities that could contribute to their happiness: the reminder of everything they could be doing to improve their well-being put them in a kind of panic, as they recognized the little time they had to do what. achieve it all.
Perhaps most importantly, pay constant attention to our state of mind. can prevent us from enjoying everyday pleasures. When surveying participants in the UK, Dr Bahram Mahmoodi Kahriz and Dr Julia Vogt from the University of Reading found that people who scored the highest on Mauss’s questionnaire felt less enthusiasm and anticipation for the events. upcoming events, and they were less likely to savor the moment during events. themselves. They were also less likely to fondly look back at a fun event in the days after, it just took up less of their mental space. “They have such a high standard for happiness that they don’t appreciate the small and simple things that are really meaningful in their life and, as a result, they are more unhappy,” says Mahmoodi Kahriz.
These lessons can be especially important in the pandemic. Spikes in our moods may be few and far between, but a simple appreciation for little pleasures amidst stress could help us overcome day-to-day anxieties, says Mahmoodi Kahriz. That will be much more difficult for people who constantly think about their happiness as they will always be mourning the loss of many more exciting activities that they could have been doing.
The law of repulsion
If the general pursuit of happiness is problematic, specific strategies designed to generate greater satisfaction can also backfire.
Consider the often-cited technique of “visualizing your success.” A student might imagine himself in a cap and gown; an athlete with a gold medal around his neck; someone on a diet could imagine the new clothes they will wear at the end of their regimen.
The idea is behind best-selling books like The power of positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and appears often in inspirational biographies. It seems to make sense that thoughts of success can increase our motivation and self-confidence. What’s wrong with imagining a better future for yourself?
Much, according to research by Professor Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues at New York University, which has shown that this intuition is counterproductive. One of his early studies found that dieters who spend some time imagining their newer, healthier figure tend to lose less weight than people who do not engage in such fantasies. Similarly, students who daydream about their future jobs are less likely to get a job after college than students who do not contemplate their successes in such vivid detail.
Researchers suspect that positive fantasies, and the positive moods they create, can lead to feelings of complacency. “You feel good about the future, with no urgency to act,” says Dr. Sandra Wittleder, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU. This process could be seen at stake in a recent study that tracks student progress over the course of two monthsThe more they reported fantasizing about their success, the less time they spent studying for their exams, presumably because, on an unconscious level, they assumed they were already on their way to earning a good grade. Inevitably, they performed worse overall.
Not only do these fantasies reduce the chances of success, but failures have an even greater emotional impact once you compare your previous hopes with your current circumstances. Echoing Mauss’s research on the pursuit of happiness, Oettingen’s team found that students who had engaged in this type of positive thinking suffered a greater number of depressive symptoms months later.
If you really want to be successful, you’d better participate in “mental contrast“, Which involves combining your fantasies of success with a deliberate analysis of the obstacles in your way and the frustrations you are likely to face. Someone who is dieting, for example, might think about the health benefits before considering the temptation of junk food, and the ways it might prevent you from reaching that goal. As you contemplate these potential failures, they may not feel as good in the short term, but many studies have shown that this simple practice can increase motivation and improve long-term success. “It creates a kind of tension or excitement,” says Wittleder, who has shown that The method can help dieters avoid temptation and eat healthier..
Black and white thinking
These unexpected effects should give pause to anyone striving for even greater satisfaction, a theme that will be on many people’s minds as a new year begins. If we do it the wrong way, an overly ambitious set of resolutions will only set us up for stress, disappointment, and loneliness.
Instead of making an elaborate list of life changes, we should aim for fewer, more realistic goals, and be aware that even some seemingly benign habits are best used in moderation. You’ve heard that keeping a “gratitude journal,” in which you regularly count your blessings, can increase your overall well-being, for example. However, research shows that we can overdose on this. In one study, people who counted their blessings once a week showed the expected increase in life satisfaction, but those who counted their blessings three times a week actually felt less satisfied with their life. “Doing the activity itself can feel like a chore, rather than something you really enjoy,” says Dr. Megan Fritz of the University of Pittsburgh, who recently reviewed the conflicting evidence for various happiness interventions.
You must also reset your expectations about the way forward. While greater satisfaction can be achieved, don’t expect miracles and accept that no matter how hard you try, feelings of frustration and unhappiness will appear from time to time. In reality, certain negative feelings can serve a useful purpose. When we feel sad, it is often because we have learned something painful but important, while stress can motivate you to make some changes in your life. Simply acknowledging the purpose of these emotions, and accepting them as an inevitable part of life, it can help you cope better than constantly trying to make them go away. Any effort we make, whether with the specific goal of achieving greater happiness or other measures of success, will come with some challenges and disappointments, and the last thing you need to do is blame yourself for occasionally feeling bad when plans don’t work out.
Ultimately, you could adopt the old adage “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and don’t be surprised by everything in between.” As my mother tried to teach me so many years ago, it takes the pressure off and you may find that satisfaction comes when you least expect it.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The intelligence trap: revolutionize your thinking and make wiser decisions (Hodder & Stoughton, £ 9.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism