John Stuart Mill once remarked: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some other object.” This is the paradox of happiness - if you try too hard to reach it, you’ll never arrive. Henry David Thoreau noticed the same paradox, suggesting that happiness was like a butterfly: “The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
Recently, some American psychologists have been exploring this paradox of happiness in a series of experiments. A new study by Iris Mauss, Craig Anderson and Nicole Savino, forthcoming in the journal Emotion, tested the controversial hypothesis that the more people value happiness, the less happy they end up feeling.
Their study firstly assessed how much importance people put on happiness, and then how well they responded to life stresses. It found that people who put a high value on happiness were significantly less happy in situations of low stress than people who put a low value on happiness (the two groups responded about the same in situations of high stress). Mauss thinks this is perhaps because their emphasis on the importance of being happy becomes self-defeating: “The more happy you want to be, the happier you think you should be, which could lead to disappointment and discontent.”
In another study, Mauss and her colleagues primed participants by getting them to read an article about all the benefits of feeling happy. They then showed the participants a short happy film, and a short sad film. The participants who had the read the happiness article felt significantly less happy when watching the short happy film.
Mauss says: “Feeling happy clearly has many social and health benefits. But, paradoxically, explicitly targeting happiness seems to be self-defeating. If we want to teach people to be happier, then we should do it without getting them to deliberately strive to be happier.”
I was reminded of this study at a conference I attended a few days later, about the British government’s new initiative to measure the nation’s happiness (you can see a short video of the conference, below). The new initiative will involve the Office of National Statistics asking us, among other questions, how happy we are, how satisfied with our life we are, and how worthwhile we think our life is.
When statisticians try to compare the wellbeing of different nations, the data often suggests that the happiest country in the world is Denmark. And this may be precisely because they don’t expect their lives to be particularly happy. A 2007 study published in the medical journal BMJ found that Danes had “consistently low expectations for the year to come. Year after year, they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”
There is much to welcome in our country’s present national push for happiness. If more people learned to meditate, or kept gratitude journals, or tried to be kind to other people, ours would surely be a better society. But the danger is that our intense cultural focus on happiness raises our expectations, and our sense that we should be happier. And this could, paradoxically, make us less happy.
I put this to Lord Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, who was speaking at the conference on measuring happiness. He replied: “We should focus on the happiness of other people rather than our own. No one is saying we should be navel gazing, or asking ourselves constantly if we’re happy. If you want to be happy, don’t think about it all the time.” Sound advice.
Jules Evans is a journalist, blogger and writer, who writes about philosophy and psychology for several publications, including his own blog,www.politicsofwellbeing.com
The first of a series of clips from our Self-Help Summit that took place in January is now available to watch online, with contributions from Richard Wiseman, Frank Furedi and NicMarks. Click here to watch.