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When Valuing Happiness Backfires

By on May 25, 2011 – 11:32 am  27 Comments

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.



Questions Questions

Questions Questions
Courtesy of Helga Weber

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!

Paradox

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.

Happy Feet

Jumping for Joy?

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.

 


 

References:

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.

Images

Questions courtesy of  Helga Weber

Paradox courtesy of Anders Sandberg

Happy Feet courtesy of LULZ Photography

27 Comments »

  • oz says:

    Hi Bridget – great article. Not surprisingly I would agree with mindfulness.

    When you say aim low I’m wondering if contentment rather than happiness might be a more useful aspiration – we tend to overlook these low energy positive emotions.

  • Ed Jacobson says:

    Excellent article, Bridget. I wasn’t familiar with this research and it’s intriguing, though at an early stage of development. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    I felt a real “OUCH!” when I read “And at the risk of getting lynched by those pesky Goal Police…”. Not being American, perhaps you’re not sensitized to our shameful history of lynching. It’s an extremely loaded term, and your writing would be better served by the use of more neutral or everyday terms, perhaps including “chastised,” “cited,” “fined” or even “harrassed.”

    Hope this helps.
    Ed Jacobson

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Ed

    Thanks for your feedback. You’re right it’s a much more casual term over here, and I really appreciate you drawing it to my attention. I really wouldn’t want to offend anyone in the US.

    Warm wishes
    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Oz

    Thanks for your comments, yes let’s hear it for contentment, serenity and calm!

    I too think these kind of low energy positive emotions are the poor relations. They’re definitley played down in positive psychology, in favour of their ‘more glamourous’ high energy cousins. But I think they have a lot to offer us.

    Bridget

  • Bob says:

    i’ve found through my practice that the concept of peacefulness, instead of happiness, seems to work more effectively.

  • Martin says:

    Happiness or Bliss? Is it that people seeking happiness thus seek too much? If I accept that happiness is an absence of sadness, then I am happy most of the time. I do seek joy through activities I pursue and achieve ‘happiness’ through Flow (as Csikszentmihalyi defines it) but also accept that feeling sad occasionally is ok. Goals that bring happiness, rather than happiness as goal.

    REN Model: Passion->Commitment->Responsibility->Appreciation->Giving->Trust->WinWin->Passion->Enrolment->Endless Possibilities!

    Martin

  • Robert Jenkins says:

    Hi Bridget.
    I enjoyed your thought-provoking article. Thanks.
    It was Aldous Huxley who wrote (somewhere, sorry, just a quote that circumnavigates the internet!): “Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities”.
    Of course, it’s not only Huxley who has reminded us of this.
    I guess the unhappiness you came across and which prompted your article can be caused by too highly valuing the pursuit rather than happiness itself…
    I’m also reminded of John Kay’s Obliquity idea here, pursuing goals indirectly. Also of the T.A. notion of a “Trying Hard” counter-injunction as a common and generally self-defeating stress-coping mechanism, something I come across a lot in clients presenting with depression [similar to ‘Lauren’ in your article]. I often find myself inviting such clients to reflect on whether they are living *with* their values, or *for* them.
    Just a few random thoughts…

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Bridget, so glad you see point out the caveats in interpreting the findings. But I noticed that you rarely do this for the blog posts where the science supports the benefits of happiness and other positive psychology constructs. I hope you use the same level of inquiry and dissection for studies that support your preconceived notions as those that challenge your preconceived notions. This also means pointing out that many studies that are cited as evidence for the benefits of happiness use the same constructs at Gruber, Mauss, Tamir, and Gross. Namely, trait positive affect, momentary positive emotions, or reward sensitivity.

    It wouldn’t be fair to create an entire section on limitations for only those studies that don’t fit with the zeitgeist of PP. It wouldn’t be good journalism to allow for studies of positive emotions that show benefits to count for happiness (the Nun study, the Psych Bull meta-analysis by King, Diener, and Lyubomirsky) whereas studies of positive emotions that fail to show benefits to be ripped to shreds. Can’t change the bar depending on your ideology.

    that being said, great blog post.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Todd,
    Great reminder to be even-handed and not to extrapolate too far.
    Kathryn

  • Hi Tod

    Those are interesting comments you make. I try to summarise the research papers I come across. What I write usually depends on how much time I’ve got and I’m sorry that that’s not good enough. In terms of my own views on positive psychology, well, I think they’re pretty balanced compared to others. I wouldn’t say they amount to an ideology as such.

    Bridget

  • Hi Bob

    Yes the concept of peacefulness sounds good – another low energy positive emotion. What practice do you do – meditation?

    Bridget

  • Hello Martin

    I’m not sure that happiness is the absence of sadness though. There’s quite a lot written about emotions, how positive and negative are not just simply at the opposite end of a spectrum. They can co-exist. I like the idea of having goals that bring happiness, rather than happiness as a goal in itself. Where does the REN model come from?

    Bridget

  • Hi again Todd

    Sorry, just realised I spelt your name wrong!

    Bridget

  • Hi Robert

    Thanks for your random thoughts! I haven’t read Obliquity though you’re the 3rd person to mention it to me in as many days. It’s on my wish list. What you say about pursuing goals indirectly reminds me of something I read recently about forces in nature – how pushing against something will be met with an equal and opposite force pushing back. I’m sure it’s got a basis in science …

    I like the idea of living with values rather than for them – that goes nicely with the indirect approach.
    Bridget

  • oz says:

    Bridget, I think Todd’s criticism of you is a little harsh. I always find your articles refreshingly grounded. Keep up the good work.

  • Good article Bridget. I wouldn’t worry about offending the goal police. I think goals in general are overrated for many of the same reasons you outline.

  • I’ve been reading a novel written in the 1940’s that included this passage that seems relevant:

    I enquire why Mrs. Wilbur thinks happiness is so important.

    She looks at me in amazement and says the pursuit of happiness is one of the chief aims set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

    This silences me completely, but Mrs. Wilbur insists that I must explain my views on the subject. She presses me so hard that at last I am forced to admit that I think the pursuit of happiness is an ignoble aim and a selfish aim and, as selfish people are never happy, a foolish aim. …

    I continue by saying that in my humble opinion happiness is a privilege, not a right. It comes, not to those who pursue it for themselves, but to those who try to give it to others. The more you pursue happiness the more it eludes you — vide Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird — and those who grasp at happiness attain despair.

    (D. E. Stevenson, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, p. 85

    Lest it look like an American-British thing, let me also say that my mother taught us that happiness is lagniappe — the 13th in the baker’s dozen. You aren’t entitled to it, but sometimes it gets thrown in.

  • Bridget says:

    Oz

    Thanks for your support! I try to be balanced. Though it’s not always helpful! I think people prefer certainty don’t they?

    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Jeremy

    I’m wondering if there is any research on success rates and having direct or indirect goals. We’re always told in coaching for example that goals must be SMART (or something similar), and that the more detailed or clearer they are, the more likely we are to achieve them. Is there basis for this in research I’m thinking? Perhaps I’ll have to read Obliquity (the book that Robert mentioned above) sooner.

    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Kathryn

    Thanks for this extract, yes very relevant. Are there any positive psychologists who’d agree that pursuing happiness is a selfish/foolish/ignoble[insert other negative adjective] aim? I expect they’d also want to qualify it along the lines of ‘pursuing happiness in this way is selfish (etc), pursuing it in that way is not’.

    I hadn’t come across the term lagniappe before. It’s an interesting description, I can see the entitlement bit but if it only sometimes gets thrown in, it has a kind of randomness about it, don’t you think?

    Bridget

  • I don’t think lagniappe is entirely random. For example, think of the baker’s dozen — is that a concept by you all? There is a certain good will involved — both based on past encounters and expectation of future interactions. If you go in crabbily to the baker, complaining about the last set of muffins you bought, what are the chances a 13th will be added to today’s dozen? And when you get home, if the 13th is there, you have the uplift of knowing you got something extra. That’s part of the gratitude concept to me — that awareness that you receive from the universe more than you’ve been able to earn directly by your own little efforts.

    Kathryn

  • Bridget says:

    Yes I see what you mean. I thought the baker’s dozen died out with the advent of the weighing scale.. I have no personal experience of it as I have never bought 12 of anything from the baker…

    On a more serious note, I certainly think that in general, we can achieve more as a team than as a bunch of individuals, and yes we should do as we wish to be done by, but I’m not sure about receiving anything from the universe. To me that’s all just coincidental.

    Bridget

  • Martin says:

    Hi Bridget,

    My reference to happiness vs sadness was a personal observation – for me a balance on the continuum of life…

    The REN model comes from this book: ‘The Power of Ren: China’s Coaching Phenomenon’ by Eva Wong and Lawrence Leung.

    http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN9780470822159

    Martin

  • Hi Bridget,

    I wouldn’t be the best person to respond to your question about research on goals (where’s Caroline Miller when you need her?) But I think that SMART goals are very limited and don’t really capture the complexity of achievment. For example, where is the feedback loop in SMART that helps you to be sure the goal you are working towards continues to be the right one?

    The limitations of valuing happiness (and the limitations I hear of happiness in general) could be applied to almost any goal pursuit. The problem is in mindlessly latching onto and pursuing goals that don’t reflect the context of the moment, changing values, competing goals, etc.

    I like this idea of HARD goals in addition to SMART goals: http://www.personalbrandingblog.com/smart-goals-vs-hard-goals/.

    I should clarify, it’s not that I don’t think goals are important. I think goals help with accomplishment which is (only) one part of flourishing. But most of the emphasis on goals is always around how to achieve them. I think achieving goals is actually fairly easy. Choosing the right goals is the hard part and that is what your article is about.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Martin

    Thanks for the clarification.

    The Power of Ren sounds fascinating – it sounds like coaching from a Chinese perspective is very different to Western-style coaching. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising given the huge cultural differences. Would you recommend this book?

    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Jeremy

    I agree with what you’ve said about feedback.Probably one of the reasons why coaching is so popular.

    I’m not sure that I agree with accomplishment being a part of flourishing,at least not directly. I think it’s an outcome of competence/mastery/self-efficacy which are a part of flourishing. It just so happens that ‘accomplishment’ fits the US model of success. Oh, and no-one outside of psychology can pronounce ‘self-efficacy’ correctly let alone understand what it means… 😉

    As for HARD goals, well yes, I see what he’s getting at but for me the language is so offputting.

    Bridget

  • cristina says:

    Hi
    It´s a very good article for reflexion. Some time ago I realice that in order to value happiness, you have to practice mindfulness exercises as often as you can, or at least in different situations.

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