Many people have everything – the partner, the career, the money – but they are not happy. And yet we are lead to view happiness as an entitlement. Our sciences, industries, and services focus on providing it. We work so hard to achieve it. What, then, has gone wrong? Research shows that the pursuit of happiness can backfire: we lose it when we pursue it. And we gain it by pursuing certain other things. This is the topic of today.
Drawing on research from positive psychology I will discuss three reasons why the pursuit of happiness can backfire: seeking happiness makes us unhappy; seeking happiness can make us into worse people; and seeking happiness is different to creating satisfaction with life. I will then talk about what does lead to happiness.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the great psychologists of modern times. A researcher in the field of positive psychology, he focuses on happiness and flourishing. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has shown that people are most happy when absorbed in something significant to them. This activity has their attention however, so they are often unaware that they are happy. It is only in reflective moments of self-awareness that they realise how good they feel. This genuine happiness is not something they have pursued, rather it emerges as a by-product of meaningful activity and connection.
The opposite occurs when we are unhappy. We usually lose happiness when we lose connection with something that gives meaning or gladly absorbs us. In that context people often fail to realise that happiness is a by-product of something else, so they turn it into an object which they seek directly. That is a mistake, as Csikszentmihalyi has shown. Indeed it is a double-mistake, for to do this is to focus on how one feels, and what the research also shows is that this kind of focusing on the self has an even more depressing affect. Pursue happiness directly as an object in itself, and you will probably become less happy.
Not only does the pursuit of happiness make us less happy, it can harm our own life, and hurt others.
Our culture loves the myth of absolute happiness. Many products and services sell that dream. But even if we could achieve it, too much happiness is a bad thing. Happiness as most people think of it is the possession of positive feelings. But have you considered what a purely happy person looks like? As a counsellor I have seen it. It is somebody suffering bi-polar disorder who is in the manic phase. Everything feels wonderful and everything seems possible. They throw caution to the wind, which in reality means spending up big, gambling the rent, taking the drugs, and following that stranger home for unprotected sex. Not much fun anymore. At least the next door. And if you agree with that claim, it is because you have access to negative emotions. It is our negative emotions which motivate us to avoid negative consequences. A person with bi-polar experiences them when it is too late, after the damage is done.
Not only does absolute happiness lead to bad consequences, but as in the example of bi-polar disorder it also leads to a crash. To the hangover of depression. Or the pain of existential boredom. This is what happens when we cannot experience the full spectrum of emotions and integrate and balance them. Resilient people and wise people have a capacity to experience both joy and sorrow in balance. Popular culture’s dream of pure happiness fails to recognise the role that all emotions have in a good life.
The impact of pure happiness gets worse. The other problem in restricting yourself to positive emotions is that empathy is eroded. Do you know who is most capable of pure bliss? The narcissist. When things go their way, they feel good. They feel good, regardless of what is happening to others, or what they are doing to others. To feel compassion is to feel pain at another’s suffering, and to be moved to change or to help. If you erase the painful and darker emotions from your life you cannot be compassionate, because you lose capacity for the insight that pain gives you.
The good life is one that integrates many emotions, that is capable of experiencing them appropriately in response to circumstances, that is strong enough to tolerate the highs and lows and return to the middle complex ground, and which can focus nonetheless on what truly matters. Rather than a happy life, we should seek a good life.
Of course, positive emotions are certainly important, and most of us would do well to cultivate them. Most of us have too many negative emotions, and not enough positive ones, in our lives. And it is possible to move toward the latter. Furthermore, research is clear on the relationship between positive emotion and good outcomes in life. But it is a mistake to think this means we just need positive feelings to succeed, or that so-called negative feelings hinder progress. A business leader who does not experience fear will fail to act until it is too late. The same leader who feels a gnawing sense of lack may come to recognise what it shows, for example that they need to pursue more than just money. They're work will become more successful, more beneficial to others, and more satisfying to them, and they will feel happier, because they let themselves experience these darker emotions, and interpreted their meaning, and acted.
One of the things which gives us the most satisfaction in life, and which we admire most, is triumph against adversity. Last weekend I rode by bicycle, up a dirt road up the mountain to King Lake. It was absolutely grueling. But I felt very different afterwards compared to when I cruise on my motorcycle along those same roads. I felt the satisfaction of achievement and pride from overcoming a challenge through sheer determination. Think about it this way. If we return to the example of a business leader, which one is more likely to be satisfied with their life when they retire, the one who came from nothing, struggled against the odds and succeeded, or another who received everything on a silver platter? And yet the former had to contended with all the ‘negative’ emotions associated with adversity. Of course that will be an important ingredient in their satisfaction and pride when they look back.
Many people living in poverty are happy. That, again, is made clear by research by positive psychologists, although you may not have heard about it. (Their point is not to dismiss the need to act on poverty, but respectfully to understand what makes us happy. Many people in poverty have much to teach us rich westerners.) Many of us have heard of the research which shows that people who win the lottery are no happier as a result, in the long-term. People think that this is because we have a fixed level of happiness, but that is not true. We can most certainly increase our happiness - again, research shows this. But we do not do so by material wealth, and certainly not when the basics of life are already covered. The reason that we can increase happiness, but not by those means, points to the core of why I am writing this reflection, and why I do this work. It is the reason why I have built my counselling and coaching around “strengths and values.” It has also guided me through the darkest times in my own life. And the research is clear that I am not the only one. What am I talking about?
As people step beyond themselves and serve something significant – for example caring for others – their happiness increases. As people retreat into themselves through fear, or act with selfishness, their life becomes more empty. The key to happiness? Forget about happiness. Instead pursue meaning. Pursue value. Connect deeply with others and the world. Sacrifice yourself if need be. Or, better, let the desire of existence to ever expand in wonderful ways, work through you. Live a life that expresses deeper values, with genuine love and care at its core. In addition, exercise your strengths, enjoy being in the flow of your talents. It is through these that you find happiness, albeit as a by-product. And when you are engaged in these important things you will not care about happiness so much. You will be too focused on what really matters.