It would make sense that the more you value happiness the more likely you’d be to obtain it. In pretty much any other domain, the more you value something the more likely you are to achieve it. The more you value health the more likely you are to exercise and eat well, for example. But, will trying to be happy actually make you happier?
One study recruited women who had had at least one major stressful event in their lives in the last 6 months. Each took a survey with an array of questions to determine their stress levels, hedonic balance (positive emotion minus negative emotion), subjective well-being, psychological well-being and depression symptoms. The researchers found that valuing happiness was associated with a lower hedonic balance, lower subjective well-being, lower psychological well-being and more depression symptoms. Not surprisingly, higher stress led to less happiness. Interestingly though, valuing happiness didn’t negatively affect actual happiness in high stress situations.
To rule out reverse causation and the like, the same researchers conducted a second experimental study. Half of the participants read a fake newspaper clip describing how valuing happiness will make you happier. The other half didn’t. Participants then watched either a short happy film or a short sad film. The researchers found that participants who read the clip on valuing happiness experienced less actual positive emotion after watching the happy video, but not after watching the sad video.
Why does striving after happiness lead to less happiness and why does this only happen in positive contexts? Here’s how the researchers explained the process:
People’s values determine not only what they want to achieve but also the standards against which they evaluate their achievements. The person who highly values academic achievement and wants to achieve high grades is bound to be disappointed at times when he falls short of his high standards. In the case of academic achievement, this may not matter for the goal at hand – someone can feel disappointed but still achieve high grades. However, in the case of happiness, this feature of goal pursuit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one’s evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with one’s goal (i.e., happiness). This reasoning leads to a counterintuitive hypothesis: People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.
The other main hypothesis is that valuing happiness causes you to become more self-focused and neglect social connections to a greater degree (which are known to increase happiness).
Given this, you might be wise to stop striving after happiness. So, does that mean you just give up and resign yourself to fate? Other research has shown that setting family and altruistic goals (but not success goals) leads to significantly greater happiness. So, setting family and altruistic goals could be an indirect path to happiness.
Mauss, Iris B., et al. “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness.” Emotion 11.4 (2011): 807.