A growing body of research suggests that striving for happiness as an end in itself can be self-defeating. In fact, the more we pursue it, the less likely it is that we’ll actually experience psychological health and well-being—and the more likely that we’ll live selfishly. Here are a few of the ways in which our efforts to feel good can go awry.
1. Forcing ourselves to be cheerful
In the movie Junebug, Amy Adams’s loquacious character, Ashley, maintains a bubbly outlook as a way of coping with an emotionally absent husband. Her optimism bias throughout the film—the belief that her future will be much better than her past—ends up causing her to sacrifice her own needs in favor of maintaining the semblance of a family. We see the same struggle unfold in the second season of the Netflix TV series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which explores the negative consequences of the main character’s attempts to maintain a relentlessly cheery outlook and repress thoughts of her past trauma.
Indeed, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, placing too high a value on happiness can pose a risk factor for depression. According to the study’s authors, refusing to accept the validity of the emotions we’re feeling is detrimental to our psychological health. For example, we shouldn’t try to ignore that slow burn of disappointment when we don’t get that big promotion at work. Attempting to fight off negative feelings with platitudes like “the other person probably deserved it more” causes a rift in our emotional regulation, as we’re trying to be happy in an unnatural context.
The fact is that there are times in our lives when it is reasonable to feel anger, grief, or fear rather than happiness. Rather than striving for any one particular emotional state, psychologists believe that we should seek to understand our emotional experiences in the moment without judgment.
2. Placing too much emphasis on achieving goals
Western culture puts a lot of pressure on us to reach certain adult landmarks associated with achieving happiness: getting married, buying a house, and having children among them. But our life circumstances actually have relatively weak effects on our overall well-being, says Maike Luhmann, a psychologist who studies happiness at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
“That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a job we like, a partner we love, great friends, good health, and sufficient income,” she adds. “These things do matter, but to a lesser extent than many of us think they do.”
3. Having unrealistic expectations
Our standards for happiness can also cause dissatisfaction when they are higher than what we can realistically achieve. If, for instance, we believe that happiness is all about experiencing pleasure—whether by dining at trendy restaurants or taking beachside vacations—then we’ll feel disheartened whenever we’re having an ordinary day. Individualistic cultures like the US and Germany are more likely to endorse these self-oriented forms of happiness, says Brett Ford, a psychologist at the University of Toronto.
It’s far more likely that we’ll feel content when we embrace happiness as a socially-oriented experience focused on finding meaning and purpose through kind acts. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that the simple act of participating in small talk with strangers can hold great benefits.
All this is a reminder that striving for happiness will most likely have the opposite effect on our psyches. In an age when many of us feel worried about what the future holds for our countries, it may be time to shift away from a focus on achieving individual bliss, and focus instead on achieving justice.