Like many teenagers, I was once plagued with angst and dissatisfaction — feelings that my parents often met with bemusement rather than sympathy. They were already in their 50s, and having grown up in postwar Britain, they struggled to understand the sources of my discontentment at the turn of the 21st century.
“The problem with your generation is that you always expect to be happy,” my mother once said.
I was baffled. Surely happiness was the purpose of living and we should strive to achieve it at every opportunity? I simply was not prepared to accept my melancholy as something that was beyond my control.
Illustration: Mountain People
The ever-growing mass of wellness literature would seem to suggest that many others share my view.
However, as a writer covering the latest research I have noticed a shift in thinking, and I am now coming to the conclusion that my mother’s judgement was spot on.
Over the past 10 years, numerous studies have shown that our obsession with happiness and high personal confidence might be making us less content with our lives, and less effective at reaching our actual goals. We might often be happier when we stop focusing on happiness altogether.
Let us first consider the counterintuitive ways that the conscious pursuit of happiness can influence our mood, starting with a study by Iris Mauss, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The participants were first asked to rate how much they agreed with a series of statements such as: “I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness,” and “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy.”
The people who scored highly should have been seizing each day for its 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 in times of relatively low stress.
Of course various factors might have caused that link, but a second study suggested a strong causal connection.
In this experiment, Mauss asked half the participants to read a paragraph expounding the benefits of feeling good, and then had them watch a feel-good film about a professional figure skater.
Far from enhancing their enjoyment of the inspirational story, the focus on their own happiness had muted their joy — compared with the second group of participants, who had been given a dry article to read about the importance of rational judgement.
These findings have since been replicated many times, with many more experiments revealing a dark side to the pursuit of happiness.
As well as reducing everyday contentment, the constant desire to feel happier can make people feel more lonely. We become so absorbed in our own well-being, we forget the people around us — and might even resent them for inadvertently bringing down our mood or distracting us from more “important” goals.
The pursuit of happiness can even have strange effects on our perceptions of time, as the constant “fear of missing out” reminds us just how short our lives are and how much time we must spend on less than thrilling activities.
In 2018, researchers at the University of Toronto found that simply encouraging people to feel happier while watching a relatively boring film meant that they were more likely to endorse the statement “time is slipping away from me.”
The same was true when the participants were asked to list 10 activities that might contribute to their happiness: The reminder of all that they could be doing to improve their well-being placed them in a kind of panic, as they recognized how little time they had to achieve it all.
Perhaps most important, paying constant attention to our mood can stop us from enjoying everyday pleasures.
Surveying participants in the UK, research assistant Bahram Mahmoodi Kahriz and associate professor Julia Vogt from the University of Reading found that the people who scored highest on Mauss’ questionnaire felt less excitement and anticipation for forthcoming events, and were less likely to savor the moment during the events themselves.
They were also less likely to look back fondly on a fun event in the days afterward — it just occupied less of their headspace.
“They have such a high standard for achieving happiness that they do not appreciate the small and simple things that are really meaningful in their life — and they are more unhappy as a result,” Mahmoodi Kahriz said.
These lessons might be especially important in the pandemic. The peaks in our mood might be few and far between, but a simple appreciation of the small pleasures amid the stress could help ease us through day-to-day anxieties, Mahmoodi Kahriz said.
That would be much harder for people who are constantly thinking about their happiness, as they are always lamenting the loss of the 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 bring about greater contentment can also backfire.
Consider the oft-cited technique of “visualizing your success.” A student might imagine themselves in mortar board and gown, an athlete with a gold medal around their neck, while someone on a diet might picture the new clothes they could be wearing at the end of their regime.
The idea lies behind bestselling books such as The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and often features in inspirational biographies. It seems to make sense that thoughts of success could boost our motivation and self-confidence. What is wrong with imagining a better future for yourself?
Quite a lot, according to research by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University, and her colleagues which has shown that this intuition is counterproductive.
One of her first studies found that dieters who spend some time imagining their newer, healthier figure tend to lose less weight than dieters who do not engage in such fantasies.
Similarly, students who daydream about their future jobs are less likely to gain employment after university than students who do not contemplate their successes in such vivid detail.
The researchers suspect that the positive fantasies — and the positive moods that they create — can lead to a sense of complacency.
“You feel good about the future, with no urgency to act,” said Sandra Wittleder, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University.
This process could be seen at play in a study tracking students’ progress over the course of two months: The more they reported fantasizing about their success, the less time they spent studying for their exams — presumably because, at an unconscious level, they assumed they were already well on the way to getting a good grade.
Inevitably, they performed worse overall.
Not only do these fantasies reduce the chances of success, the failures pack an even greater emotive punch once you compare your previous hopes with your current circumstances.
Echoing Mauss’ research on the pursuit of happiness, Oettingen’s team found that the students who had engaged in this kind of positive thinking suffered a greater number of depressive symptoms months down the line.
If you really want to succeed, you would do far better to engage in “mental contrasting,” which involves combining your fantasies of success with a deliberate analysis of the obstacles in your path and the frustrations you are likely to face.
Someone going on a diet, for example, might think about the benefits for their health before considering the temptation of junk food, and the ways it could stop them from reaching that goal. By contemplating these potential failures, they might not feel so good in the short term, but many studies have shown that this simple practice can increase motivation and improve success in the long run.
“It creates a kind of tension or excitement,” said Wittleder, who has shown that the method can help dieters to avoid temptation and eat more healthily.
These unexpected effects should give pause for thought to anyone striving for even greater contentment — a topic that is likely to be on many people’s minds at the beginning of the year. If we go about it in the wrong way, an overambitious set of resolutions will only set us up for stress, disappointment and loneliness.
Rather than making an elaborate list of life changes, we should aim for fewer, more realistic goals, and be aware that even some apparently benign habits are best used sparingly.
You might have heard that keeping a “gratitude journal” — in which you regularly count your blessings — can increase your overall well-being, for example. Yet research shows that we can overdose on this.
In one study, people who counted their blessings once a week showed the expected rise in life satisfaction, but those who counted their blessings three times a week actually became less satisfied with their life.
“Doing the activity can itself feel like a chore, rather than something you actually enjoy,” said Megan Fritz, a postdoctoral academic the University of Pittsburgh, who reviewed the conflicting evidence for various happiness interventions.
You should also reset your expectations of the path ahead. While greater contentment is achievable, do not 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 to your life. Simply recognizing the purpose of these emotions and accepting them as an inevitable part of life might help you to cope better than constantly trying to make them disappear.
Any effort that we make — whether it is specifically aiming at greater happiness, or other measures of success — will come with some challenges and disappointments, and the last thing you should do is blame yourself for occasionally feeling bad when plans do not work out.
Ultimately, you might adopt the old adage: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and be unsurprised by everything in between.”
As my mother tried to teach me all those years ago, ease the pressure off yourself and you might just find that contentment arrives when you are least expecting it.
David Robson is a science writer.
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