Striving for Happiness Could Be Making You Unhappy

Happiness research has uncovered some enlightening elements about happiness and well-being
By Lowri Dowthwaite , University of Central Lancashire
May 27, 2019 Updated: May 27, 2019

Happiness is big business, with sales of self-help books reaching record levels in the past year. Perhaps that’s because happiness is no longer the birthright of the elite.

A half century ago, psychologist Warner Wilson said a happy person is generally “young, healthy, well educated, well paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married, with high self-esteem, high job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex, and of a wide range of intelligence.”

The suggestion in his description was that it was harder to be happy for the poor and uneducated.

But today, happiness is something we are all told to aspire towards. But many of us who take up gratitude journals, meditation, and positive affirmations, discover that these tactics don’t make us meaningfully happier. The same often goes for achieving those goals that society prescribes—such as career success or physical fitness.

We’re told happiness will make us better parentsworkers, and people. This cure-all is supposedly so potent, we seek it endlessly.  Sometimes this pursuit of happiness can lead us down harmful paths, like overeating, or be stressful. In fact, researchers have found that people that over-value happiness actually end up less happy.

Researchers have tried to unravel the mysteries of happiness with quantitative methodologies that reveal what makes most people happy. But these studies and statistical averages, while insightful, cannot reflect the deeply different things—from material possessions to intellectual growth—that bring individuals happiness. 

Originally, the branch of science most devoted to happiness studies—positive psychology—assumed that well-being was achieved by maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative emotions. But this approach has come under increasing doubt from findings that suggest it is far too simplistic. Newer findings support much older ideas about what creates real happiness.

Meaning Versus Positivity

The view of many researchers today ties in Aristotle’s view of the “good life.” This Greek philosopher argued that happiness is not just about feeling good but about feeling “right.” He believed that a happy life involves experiencing the right emotions based on your values and beliefs. Or, in other words, happiness came from a balanced and virtuous life. 

Therefore, happiness is not simply about a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, but a meaningful engagement with life. At times it may be appropriate to be sad or angry as well as being optimistic and hopeful that things can change.

Meaning is a close relative of happiness. The pair often go hand in hand but are two entirely separate constructs. It is possible to lead a pleasurable life, but without much meaning. It is also possible to experience a meaningful life dedicated passionately to a cause but experience very little positive emotion. My own forthcoming study has found that meaning—more so than positive emotions—is more predictive of happiness in the long run.

Personality and Maturity

But meaning and pleasure can be subjective. For one person, raising children in a stable and homely family house may be the best way to achieve meaning, while for someone else it may be building a successful company—with or without children.

What’s more, our personalities change over time—we tend to get more emotionally stable and conscientious as we age. That means our approach to happiness may change. One qualitative study exploring the way individuals talk about happiness and personal growth found that people experience well-being differently based on what stage they are in of their conscious development, as determined by the researchers.

In the stages of early development, our happiness is mostly dependant on social norms—being loved and accepted by others. As we mature, we can differentiate between our own and other people’s emotions in order to pursue meaningful goals. Even higher stages of development are associated with a self-transformation which involves a shift of awareness from pursuing goals to the process of living. For example, when it comes to family time, it may be more important to just be together than doing certain things as a group—such as going to Legoland because everyone else is. The researchers found that mature individuals exercised more control, choice, and flexibility over their well-being and that this opened up more opportunities for happiness.

So it’s unlikely that a few simple rules could make everyone happy. 

So the next time a well-meaning relative tells you that renovating your house will boost your life satisfaction, don’t feel rushed to start tearing out walls. We all have different ways of being happy and there isn’t a universal formula. As tempting as it is to find happiness through learning from others—and being accepted by them—if it’s someone else’s version of happiness, it might not be the best for you.

Lowri Dowthwaite is a lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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