Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
My friend Lauren (not her real name) once told me the story of how, in the middle of her depression a few years ago, she often stopped in the middle of a very positive experience to ask herself “…but am I really happy?” The effect, she said, was like bursting a balloon. Even though she might have been feeling pretty upbeat to start with, posing the question caused her to immediately crash back down into depression.
I was reminded of Lauren’s story when I came across new research by psychologists Iris Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig Anderson, and Nicole Savino, which suggests that valuing happiness itself could be self-defeating and actually lead to disappointment.
How Can That Be? The Argument
The first point goes like this. What you value determines your goals, and most people work towards their goals in order to achieve what they value. For example if you value academic excellence you’ll study harder, and all things being equal, you’ll get better grades. Applying the same logic to happiness means that if you value happiness highly, you’ll work harder to achieve it, and all things being equal, you’ll experience greater happiness.
So far so good?
The second point, which makes it a bit more complicated, is that what you value also determines the standards you use to measure your achievements. So if you value academic excellence you’ll study harder and if you fall short of your standards then you’ll be disappointed. I recall one of my UEL MAPP classmates, an exceptionally gifted student, who was virtually distraught at receiving 91% for an assignment because it was below her standard. And yes, we did find it difficult to empathize!In terms of valuing happiness and having it as your goal, you can probably see the looming paradox. If you fall short of your happiness standard, the ensuing feeling of disappointment is incompatible with your goal of feeling happy. Iris Mauss and her collaborators hypothesize that people who value happiness highly set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, which leads them to feel disappointed when they don’t achieve them. Paradoxically, the more they want happiness, it’s suggested, the more happiness decreases. I don’t know if valuing something highly always means you set higher standards, but let’s assume that this is the case.
The third important point is context – for example if you value academic achievement you’re more likely to feel disappointed if you fail an easy exam than a hard one. The researchers suggest that the same logic applies to happiness, and that you’re more likely to be disappointed that you aren’t happy when you have every reason to be (such as at your own birthday party).
What the Studies Tell Us
The first study Iris Mauss and her colleagues conducted was a correlation study, using a range of measures of well-being and life stress over the past 18 months to test whether the degree to which people value happiness is associated with happiness and well-being. Valuing happiness was associated with lower hedonic balance, lower psychological well-being, less satisfaction with life, and higher depressive symptoms. At lower (but not higher) life stress, the more participants valued happiness, the lower their happiness and life satisfaction and the higher their symptoms of depression. The study suggests that under conditions of low (but not high) life stress, the more people valued happiness, the worse they felt.The second study examined causal effects by manipulating the extent to which people value happiness using a fake newspaper article praising the importance of happiness, and assessing their emotional state after watching a pre-tested happy or sad film clip. The results suggest that people who’d read the newspaper article were in a less positive emotional state than those in the control condition after watching the happy film clip, but not after the sad film clip.
The researchers conclude that valuing happiness can lead people to feel less happy precisely in those situations which should actually make them feel happy. I wonder if this was at the bottom of Lauren’s predicament. In positive situations, expectations for happiness are high. As Iris Mauss and colleagues point out, it’s difficult to attribute any failure to be happy to outside circumstances.
There are several unusual or limiting features to this research: all participants were female, the sample size was small (Study 1 = 59, study 2 = 69) and a large proportion were European American (81% and 57.7% respectively). That said, I think the researchers should be given extra bonus points for using ordinary members of the public in Study 1. They urge caution in their interpretations: for example there may be other things apart from disappointment which mediate the effects of valuing happiness, and valuing happiness may not be self-defeating in all cases. Valuing happiness could lead to greater happiness if you have the right tools (perhaps practicing some of the evidence-based positive psychology interventions?). Or it may help if you define happiness more broadly than just an emotional state, for example, as the models of flourishing by Felicia Huppert and Martin Seligman suggest.
Suggestions to Avoid Backfires
So if you’re a bit like Lauren, questioning whether you really are happy, here are some suggestions
- Aim low! Reduce your standard of happiness – expecting to experience a state of constant bliss or ecstasy is unrealistic. Far better to aim for the less exciting but much more attainable state of contentment.
- Broaden your view of happiness. Don’t just focus on pleasure. As various positive psychology models suggest, there’s a lot more to happiness than just feeling good. Seligman’s PERMA model starts with positive emotions but also includes engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Felicia Huppert’s flourishing model includes engagement, meaning, self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination and relationships alongside positive emotions.
- Practice mindfulness. Or as Steven Hayes, originator of acceptance and commitment therapy would say, “Get out of your mind and into your life.”
- And at the risk of getting harassed by those pesky Goal Police, can I also suggest not having happiness as your goal??
Let me know what you think.
Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 1-9. Abstract.
Hayes, S.C. & Smith, S.X. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. USA: New Harbinger Publications.
Huppert, F. & So, T. (2009). What percentage of people in Europe are flourishing and what characterises them? Prepared for the OECD/ISQOLS meeting “Measuring subjective well-being: an opportunity for NSOs?” Florence – July 23/24, 2009
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Questions courtesy of Helga Weber
Paradox courtesy of Anders Sandberg
Happy Feet courtesy of LULZ Photography