Why Pursuing Happiness Could be Making you Miserable

Why Pursuing Happiness Could be Making you Miserable

Happiness is a choice, you just have to choose it, right?

Urm, no.

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.

103H

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.

Image credit: Michael Duxbury, available on Flickr. CC License 2.0

Image credit: Michael Duxbury, available on Flickr. CC License 2.0

If pursuing happiness is a bad idea, what should you pursue?
Find out next time.

Footnotes

  1. Ekman, P. (2004). Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings. London: Phoenix.
  2. 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.
  3. Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281–291. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0048577201393198
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Image Credit: Happy Pug by Anthony. Available on Flickr. CC License 2.0.

Why you Need to Read This Blog

Why you Need to Read This Blog

I don’t know about you but I’m sick of being told that I need to be happy.

My Facebook feed is filled with articles about the seven things I need to do right now to be happy. Or articles saying this is what happy people do and I should do it too. And sure, it all makes perfect sense, but then I just sit around wondering why all these articles sound exactly the same, and if it’s all that simple, why can’t we all do what we apparently should be doing?

The pursuit of happiness is an internet craze. It’s not enough to have food in our bellies, a roof over our heads and a high speed internet connection. We want more. We want to be happy, motivated and loved. We don’t want to be miserable, lazy and hated. We constantly chase after the good, while simultaneously trying to avoid the bad, and our lives pass us by in a massive conveyor belt of experiences that are never quite good enough (and if they are, they never quite last long enough).

Honestly, I have no idea what bloggers mean when they talk about happiness. No one defines it. No one says ‘when I say ‘happiness’ I mean ‘this, this and this’, and so it’s up for interpretation. And the interpretation seems to be: Happiness means feeling good all or most of the time, and feeling bad rarely, if at all.

It’s time to call bullshit. This constant need to feel good all the time is getting old, and it’s exhausting. The worst part is it doesn’t even work. The more we chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes. Eric Hoffer once said, “the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness”, and science agrees 1.

Think about it: despite advances in the treatment of depression more, the rate of depression continues to rise 2. Why? One suggestion is that the way humans are biologically and culturally set up to cope with crappy life events is inadequate3. Society doesn’t teach us how to cope effectively, so we fall back on human nature, and human nature screams “avoid!” and we all nod our heads and say ‘yes, yes, suppress the anxiety, what a great idea! Hand me another Xanax’.

Everything good in life is going to be accompanied by some kind of physical or emotional discomfort. This is not news. To get a nice derrière you need to work out, and working out is uncomfortable, especially if you’re unfit. To fall in love you need to open yourself up to some disappointing experiences – awkward first dates, guys who don’t call you back, and a girlfriend who you thought was different but ends up cheating on you anyway. And to feel happy, you’ve got to be open to feeling bad.

The problem is human beings hate discomfort, and so we avoid it, and we end up sacrificing the very things that make our lives worthwhile.

What don’t you want in your life? What have you tried to get rid of it? Did it work? If it did – that’s great! If it didn’t – maybe it’s time for a shift in perspective. Maybe it’s time to start living life how you want to live it right now, regardless of how you feel. Maybe you don’t have to get rid of anything. Maybe you really can feel the fear and do it anyway.

Simple right? Problem solved. Uh, not quite…

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do. We know. Oh we definitely know. We are inundated with what’s, and blog posts and self-help books telling us exactly what to do. The problem is that we don’t know how. We don’t know how to deal with the thoughts, and emotions, and problems that stop us from doing what it is we need to do to live a fulfilling life. We don’t know how to feel the fear and do whatever it is we want to do.

The Yellow Brick Blog is about how to take action to change your life for the better. Plus there will be science. Because science tell us what works, why it works, and how to implement it. The Yellow Brick Blog is not about sitting behind your computer screen emotionally masturbating to motivational posts and lists of things you need to do or should do. This blog is about doing.

I’m not an expert. I don’t have a sob story that somehow makes me qualified to tell you how to live your life. I’m just a girl who happens to read scientific articles for fun on Saturday nights.

How you live your life is up to you. I’m just going to make some science-based suggestions. So welcome. Benefit from my geekiness. Someone has to.

Image credit: Sarah Joy CC license 2.0

Footnotes

  1. Eric Hoffer as cited in Ford, B. Q., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In Gruber, J. & Moskowitz, J. T. (Eds.), Positive Emotion: Integrating the Light Sides and Dark Sides. Oxford Scholarship Online.
  2. Prescriptions for antidepressants have increased over time (see this report), and rates in depression appear to have been rising since the early 90s (see Compton et al., 2006 and Hidaka, 2012). This isn’t surprising, if more people get depressed than more drugs will be prescribed to treat them. But it suggests that there’s something driving rises in depression that isn’t being addressed.
  3. Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1–25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006