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How Striving to Be Happy Can Make You Miserable – The Science of Happiness

I just want to be happy” is a goal that many people set for themselves.

And then measure whatever happens in their personal and professional life based on this standard.

“Am I happy?”, “Does this context make me happy?”.

It may seem a clear objective to focus one’s attention and resources on.

But that is not the case and science is here to confirm that striving for happiness can at times trigger the opposite effects.

I will explain below why that may happen.

The Irrational Side of Happiness

I will address three main reasons why setting happiness as a goal can hinder your chances of living a full, healthy, fulfillment-marked life.

1 — It’s a vague goal.

Happiness is subjective.

Optimized goal-setting that prepares us for success relies on the ability to track progress and measure our achievements.

Happy is a vague term. How do you know you’re happy?

Can you be happier at a certain moment? When do you check off the “I’m happy now” box?

Are the levels of happiness that you encounter in everyday contexts similar? — Is “I just had the best cookie ever” happy comparable to “I just married the person that I love” happy?

Happiness is an umbrella term — there’s so much going on beneath it, and measuring happiness has plenty to do with how you define the term in any given context.

Optimized goals are specific. Vague formulations will set you on a path of confusion and will make it more difficult to reach the targets that you set for yourself.

2 — It reflects a cognitive distortion — a flawed thinking pattern called “Should Statement”.

I should/ought to/must be happy all the time/no matter what” is an irrational thought.

It falsely makes one believe that happiness must be pursued and experienced all the time in order to live a good life.

But that is a lie the brain tells us at times — that unless happiness is ongoing, then the goal that we’ve set for ourselves is still out of reach and rather difficult to attain.

It also makes one think in absolute opposing terms such as happy/unhappy — dichotomous thinking is another type of cognitive distortion.

Holding a belief such as “I should/must be happy” reveals the dark side of happiness advocacy. Positive psychology is partially — if not entirely — to blame for this one.

Striving for happiness becomes a toxic habit when it bends your existence into a race that you can never win, nor finish.

recent study by Murat Yıldırım & John Maltby showed that “It is our belief system that affects us towards being happy or unhappy.”

The authors conclude that “[i]f happiness seems temporary and difficult to attain, it is because one allows their faulty beliefs system to affect their happiness”. At the same time, “[i]f happiness is long-lasting and continuous, it is because one allows their healthy beliefs system to affect their happiness”.

They go on to recommend that we avoid using should statements when guiding our beliefs about happiness.

This is just one of the many studies that support the idea that to live a healthy life and maintain psychological well-being, one should learn to identify and manage cognitive distortions, also known as automatic thinking patterns.

Note: I address the main 10 Cognitive Distortions and how to manage them in my online course “Assertive Communication: Build the Independent You” but you can also read about them here.

3 — Negativity is not always bad for you

Really. Negative emotions — or rather unpleasant emotions — have an adaptive role.

One can function better when learning to cope with adverse contexts.

Facing negative contexts helps us develop coping mechanisms that will help us avoid becoming overwhelmed, numb, or psychologically frozen when life’s less than desirable aspects reach us.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s useful and part of a higher-level skill — the power to adapt.

Striving for happiness all the time, the stubbornness to only see the positive aspects of a context and irrationally deny the existence and power of the so-called negative ones means poor contact with reality.

Negativity is part of life and we will have better chances to survive and thrive if we learn to manage it properly.

So, there you have it.

The pursuit of happiness can be a driving force or a sign of poor psychological adaptation to the world we live in.

You have the power to change the outcome by assessing your beliefs and making the required changes.

Joy and fulfillment are hidden in so many aspects of our life, it would be a pity to miss them simply because those moments did not have a “happiness is here” tag on them.

Thank you for reading.

REFERENCES

Yıldırım, M., Maltby, J. Examining Irrational Happiness Beliefs within an Adaptation-Continuum Model of Personality and Coping. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 40, 175–189 (2022).

Note: Originally published on a different platform on May 16, 2022.

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