Happiness is a choice, you just have to choose it, right?
One of the biggest misconceptions promoted by the self-help movement is that we can control our emotions. If that was possible, every depressed, anxious, or otherwise miserable person would’ve done it by now.
There are six universal human emotions that everyone has – including you, me, and cannibals in Papua New Guinea1.
Only two of these are labelled positive: happiness and surprise.
Anger, sadness, fear, and disgust have been labelled as ‘problem emotions’ to be discovered and destroyed2.
Why do we have emotions?
Emotions are automatic physiological responses that happen when something triggers them.
Emotion theorists argue that emotions evolved to alert us to important events in the world and help us to respond without having to think about how to respond1,3. Emotions protect us from harm, help us get food, avoid predators, and survive long enough to sow our wild seeds.
Since emotions are triggered by what happens, we can’t control whether or not they come up. But we can control how we respond to them3.
So why do we try so hard to avoid ‘bad’ emotions?
Emotions evolved over millions of years to aid survival. And it worked. That’s why we’re still here. Bad feelings signal that things aren’t going well, and their presence prompts us to act.
Emotions are still helpful. It’s just that sometimes they aren’t.
Being angry when someone is stealing the gazelle you hunted for three days = helpful. Screaming, red-faced and crazed because someone was too slow taking off at the traffic lights = not helpful.
We’ve been culturally indoctrinated to believe we should feel happy or there’s something wrong with us. It’s not acceptable for an adult to throw a tantrum in the supermarket. Some people don’t even think it’s appropriate for a toddler to do that. We’re not allowed to express our frustration, sadness or fear in obvious ways. Because it’s ‘wrong’, and a sign of weakness.
So when we feel sad, we pursue feelings of happiness. But pursuing happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness.
I’ve put together three reasons why pursuing happiness could make you miserable.
1. To feel good all the time you have to suppress the bad
Life is filled with mundane, painful, and challenging events. When they occur, your body will automatically produce emotions. To succeed in feeling happy all the time you either have to stop emotions from being triggered (dead people do this really well), or you have to suppress them as soon as they come up.
Trying to suppress your emotions and thoughts is not recommended. For one, it doesn’t get rid of unwanted emotions 4, and suppression is particularly ineffective when emotions are strong 5. Trying to suppress your thoughts can actually make unwanted thoughts pop up more often6. And, trying to suppress both emotions and thoughts can have negative consequences for your health7, especially if it’s a strategy you use regularly8.
2. Whether an emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on context
Emotions influence what we think, and how we think.
When we’re sad, we’re more pessimistic, more cautious and more responsive to what is happening around us. We have better memories, are able to produce more persuasive arguments, and are more accurate at detecting if someone is lying3.
When we’re happy, we tend to be cognitively lazy. We use more superficial thinking strategies, are more likely to react based on stereotypes, and succumb to cognitive biases. We might be happier, but we’re also more gullible and selfish1.
This doesn’t mean being happy is a bad thing. It just means that emotions can be helpful or unhelpful – depending on the context.
3. Monitoring how you feel interferes with being happy
People who actively pursue happiness tend to monitor how they feel. They ask themselves: Am I happy now? What about now? Monitoring how you feel like this interferes with the experience of being happy.
Plus, when people seek happiness they often set high expectations about how happy they should feel, and when they fall short of their expectations, they’re more likely to feel disappointed…and unhappy9.
The Roundabout of Misery
Here’s how I see it.
The pursuit of happiness is a sure fire ticket to getting on the roundabout of misery. The more you chase happiness, the more rigid and single-minded your actions become. You ask yourself “am I happy now?” and if not you keep on striving to get to a place where you are happy. So you run around this roundabout chasing after this goal of happiness. Sometimes you catch it. But as soon as you stop to think whether you’re happy or not, it slips away.
So you pick up the chase again and you’re even more convinced that if you only just run harder and faster that you will get it for good this time. But every time you catch it, sooner or later it slips through your fingers.
And while you’re chasing after happiness you’re running around in a circle like a weirdo. Seriously. Living is not chasing your tail in a circle. Unless you’re a dog, and then I’d imagine that’s an excellent way to spend an afternoon.
But you are not a dog.
To live, you’ve got to pick an exit on that roundabout and leave the pursuit of happiness behind.
You might find happiness when you take the exit. And you might not. There are no guarantees in life.
What is guaranteed though is that you will feel good sometimes and you will feel bad sometimes, so you might as well live your life the way you want to, regardless.
If pursuing happiness is a bad idea, what should you pursue?
Find out next time.
- Ekman, P. (2004). Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings. London: Phoenix.
- Forgas, J. P. (2011). The upside of feeling down: The benefits of negative mood for social cognition and social behaviour. Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology, Sydney, Australia.
- Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281–291. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0048577201393198
- Ehring, T., Tuschen-Caffier, B., Schnülle, J., Fischer, S., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation and vulnerability to depression: Spontaneous versus instructed use of emotion suppression and reappraisal. Emotion, 10(4), 563–572. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0019010
- Liverant, G. I., Brown, T. A., Barlow, D. H., & Roemer, L. (2008). Emotion regulation in unipolar depression: The effects of acceptance and suppression of subjective emotional experience on the intensity and duration of sadness and negative affect. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1201–1209.
- Becker, E. S., Rinck, M., Roth, W. T., & Margraf, J. (1998). Don’t worry and beware of white bears: Thought suppression in anxiety patients. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 12(1), 39–55.
- Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5), 1264–1272.
- Denollet, J., Gidron, Y., Vrints, C. J., & Conraads, V. M. (1555). Anger, suppressed anger, and risk of adverse events in patients with coronary artery disease. American Journal of Cardiology, 105(11), 2010.
- Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815.