Grasping for Happiness may Lead to Depression
Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. – Mill
Judging by the huge number of psychological and self-help books claiming to know the secret to happiness and how people can increase it, we have become a nation obsessed with happiness. Happiness is important to well-being and for physical and emotional health, but research has shown that the more we value happiness, the more likely we will feel disappointed. These studies suggest that encouraging a goal of maximizing happiness (as many “self-help” books do) may be counterproductive.
Happiness is not an achievable goal in the same way academic success is, through working hard and studying. Happiness is more slippery than that. By making happiness a goal to be achieved, we set difficult-to-obtain standards that can be easily frustrated. Frustration leads to disappointment and discontent and, paradoxically, decreasing happiness.
When we expect to feel happy and instead end up feeling blah, bored, or bothered, our experience is incompatible with our goal of happiness. When people put too much emphasis and value on seeking happiness, they become vulnerable to paradoxical effects.
Unhappiness (though not depression) is often attributable to a particular circumstance, such as hearing that a close friend had an accident. So in positive circumstances, people have every reason to feel happy. You might, for instance, plan a special occasion like a party or a night out, fully expecting happiness as a result. Yet you might feel let down instead if the occasion couldn’t live up to your expectations for it. So the more you desire happiness, the less likely you may be to obtain it, especially when happiness appears within reach.
Accepting the Good, and the Difficult Emotions
It makes sense to follow John Stuart Mill’s suggestion not to have your mind fixed on personal happiness. Eliminating happiness as a goal to be achieved helps people better accept negative emotional experiences, improving overall emotional health.
In psychotherapy, we work on accepting that not all experience will be positive or happy. It is by accepting both our difficult experiences along with the more favorable ones that we begin to live life more fully. And in living fully, with ups, downs, and the in-between experience, we may be surprised to find happiness is often just around the corner—obtainable—if we’re not grasping for it.
In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and stress reduction, we teach non-judgmental acceptance of all of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. And, paradoxically by practicing this acceptance, those moments of happiness sneak up on us, and we can be surprised to find ourselves feeling happy for no apparent reason.
Iris B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino. (2011). Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness. Emotion.