Written by : Andrea Culletto

Does Trying to Be Happier Make You Less Happy?

Confused women sitting at her desk.

I am a happiness junkie. Positive psychology? Yes please. Gratitude journals? Done. Top five happiness boosters? I’m there.

But then I saw a series of studies suggesting that trying to be happy might actually make you less happy. This stopped me in my tracks. Was it time to question my whole happiness philosophy?

First, let’s take a look at the research:

  • One study by McGuirk and colleagues found that subjects who felt an expectation to be happy were more stressed about their perceived failures, which led to more self-critical thoughts and feelings, and less actual happiness.
  • Another study by Mauss and colleagues found that focusing on happiness (inherently a personal rather than collective gain) can actually pull people away from others and damage relationships, ultimately resulting in increased loneliness (which is basically anti-happiness).
  • A third study by Diener, Sandvik and Pavot found that experiencing euphoric highs can actually increase the intensity of negative emotions and dull our ability to experience more prolonged levels of satisfaction.

This all seems like bad news for a happiness-seeker like me. But that’s why it’s important to take a closer look. When you actually dissect these studies, you find it’s not seeking happiness that’s the problem, it’s the way you go about it, i.e. buying into the myth that we should be happy even in hard times, pulling away from others, and seeking increasingly extreme highs to the detriment of simpler and longer lasting satisfaction.

If you find yourself falling into one of these traps, it’s probably time to switch tactics. Don’t chase happiness, instead, focus on the practices most likely to bring you true joy.

The Path to True Joy

There’s been a great deal of research done on what does (and what does not) bring happiness. Fortunately, a few tried and true practices always arise:

  • Nurture your mental health by calming the mind, savoring the moment, and allowing yourself to enjoy the simple things in life.
  • Nourish your body with movement, nutrients, time in natural spaces, and quality sleep.
  • Feed your spirit by spending as much time as possible with friends and family, and doing things that give you a deeper feeling of purpose, meaning and fulfillment.
  • Understand that happiness comes more from within than without. Everyone thinks that external things will make them happier (more money, a bigger house, less debt, a new car) but after a short time, those things lose their effect. In fact, studies have shown that even winning the lottery will not buy you more happiness in the long run.

Each of us is a living laboratory. Experiment with these ideas and find out what works for you.

What I Know For Sure

I know one thing for sure: The tools I’ve gained from trying to be happier are the ones I use time and time again. For example, my family recently received some potentially devastating news. I was angry. I was sad. I was frustrated. None of those feelings changed the reality of the situation, but it was important to feel them nonetheless. That’s life, as they say.

But then those feelings decided to set up camp… and they really overstayed their welcome. And they invited their old friends hopelessness and misery to join the party (insomnia stopped by too). When it became evident that these freeloaders weren’t helping me actually change anything – and weren’t going anywhere on their own, I reached into my old happiness toolkit.

Out came the gratitude journal and visualization boards. Out came the affirmations (my current favorite is “What if this all works out?”). I put my ruminating thoughts in time-out. I focused on savoring the moment and the simple things. I moved my body as much and as often as possible. And, just like every time before, it worked; not all at once, but it worked nonetheless.

Trying to be happier hasn’t made me less happy. It hasn’t made me immune to anger or sadness either. It has simply given me the tools I need to move forward when the time is right. Thanks to my happiness journey, I can navigate the sea of emotion and steer my ship where I want it to go. And it’s made all the feelings that surface along the way a little less scary, which is half the battle anyway.

So continue on happiness seekers. After all, true joy is always in the journey.


Read more from Andrea Culletto at ExploryTales.com.

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