Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable?

The idea that you have to always be happy is what makes people unhappy – ironically

There has never been a greater focus on happiness. There are books, podcasts, Ted talks and courses on how to be happy. The volume of academic research on the subject has increased tenfold since the turn of the century, according to the World Happiness Report 2022.

Smile more, these studies, books and guides urge us. Exercise. Journal your gratitude. Find a sustaining and satisfying job. Visualise success. Tame negative thoughts. Ask the universe. Have more sex. Move to Finland.

Such is the obsession with making the most of every moment that you can download an app, WeCroak, to remind you five times a day that you’re going to die – on the basis that regularly micro-dosing on existential dread ought to focus your mind on finding joy. “Reminder: Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” the push notifications literally chirp.

Negative emotions are increasingly pathologised – even in the face of bereavement. The latest edition of the American DSM-5 (the principal authority for mental disorder diagnoses) includes “prolonged grief disorder” as a mental illness – the controversial message being that if you’re still deep in grief a year after the death of a loved one, you may need professional help.

With all of this focus on happiness, it is hard to avoid the sense that being sad or depressed or lonely – or at least not bouncing around in frequent paroxysms of bliss – means you are failing at life. But the truth, says Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the Happiness Lab podcast, is that "happiness is really hard".

Santos, whose nickname is the happiness professor, herself made the news earlier this year when it was reported that she was taking a sabbatical to prevent burnout. This led the New York Times to muse, Carrie Bradshaw-style: “If the happiness professor is feeling burned out, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

When I ask her about this, Santos answers with surprising candour. “Sometimes when it’s been talked about that I’m taking this leave of absence because of burnout, people think I’m already burnt out. And I’m hopeful that I’m not there yet,” she laughs. “I was noticing a variety of things when I decided to make this decision.”

We will come back to the factors that led to her taking leave. But first, to the question of why – with an entire global industry dedicated to the pursuit of happiness – many people have a sense that they’re not happy enough. The popularity of Santos’s academic courses suggests it’s not for lack of effort. More than 3.8 million people have enrolled in an online Science of Wellbeing course she gives on Coursera, while one in every four students at Yale is enrolled in her Psychology and the Good Life course.

“It’s hard in our modern environment, because there are so many cultural forces that are pushing us in the wrong direction. […] Many of the instincts that come from living in a capitalist society aren’t necessarily consistent with what science says will really improve your wellbeing. Capitalism wants us to buy more stuff, to go out and achieve toxic productivity.”

Meanwhile, one of the “misconceptions about happiness” is that it “requires having no negative emotions”. In reality, “a life with purpose and meaning involves experiencing the whole gamut of human emotions”.

Unrealistic expectations

According to Dr Deirdre O’Shea, organisational psychologist and lecturer at the University of Limerick,  the positive psychology movement has lost its way since it first emerged two decades ago.

“What has happened is the message has become blurred in the last 20 years, which has now become ‘you should just be happy, you should just think about the positive’. That’s not realistic. None of us are happy all the time. Negative emotions, even though they can be uncomfortable and not pleasant, often serve a purpose for us.

“What a lot of this pressure to be happy forgets is that not all of this is in our control. Things happen – the pandemic, the war, family members getting sick. This idea that you have to always be happy is actually what makes people unhappy, ironically,” she says.

A mounting body of research shows that people who make happiness the goal instead of an outcome of doing something worthwhile will likely end up disappointed.

"Happiness should be a byproduct. And if your goal is happiness, then it's a rather elusive goal, because it's very difficult to operationalise," says Prof Ian Robertson, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist.

Research by Iris Mauss, a professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Emotional Regulation Lab at Berkeley in the US, has found that people who show high levels of “concern about happiness” and “constantly judge and evaluate their own hedonic state rather than simply experiencing it…They look at their own emotional experiences, judge them and ultimately end up being disappointed with how they actually feel”.

The (reasonably) good news is that most of us are (reasonably) happy, even if we don’t always feel like it or acknowledge it. “Overall, the world has become significantly happier. There may have been a glitch following the 2008 recession, Covid and now the horror in Ukraine,” says Robertson.

So things are better than they seem. Increased prosperity has led to higher levels of happiness. “People in Africa are living until 60 instead of 40,” he says. “We have polio almost eliminated from the globe. We have surprisingly high happiness rates in many countries that we regard as poor.”

Still, at an individual level, “in the western world, once you get all your material resources satisfied, it’s easier to feel a sense of lack of purpose. And if you’re also lonely or isolated, then you’re going to be anxious, you’re going to have low mood, you’re not going to be happy,” he says.

According to the annual World Happiness Report, which was published last month, we report positive emotions twice as often as negative ones on a given day. Overall, Ireland ranks an impressive 13th in the world in terms of our happiness levels.

Unsurprisingly, negative emotions did rise during the pandemic years – stress and worry have been increasing generally. The report found that after five reasonably stable years during and after the financial crash, “worry and sadness have been rising over the past 10 years, especially during 2020, the first year of Covid-19, before improving somewhat in 2021… Stress was also fairly constant for the first five years but has increased steadily ever since, faster than worry or sadness.”

Pandemic burnout

At work, the pandemic caused a lot of stress and anxiety, but it also released us from a lot of pointless, joy-sapping activities – commuting, lengthy in-person meetings that could have been an email, business travel – and gave us something many people crave, which is more flexibility. And yet, pandemic burnout is a widely reported phenomenon across a range of professions.

“People were really on the verge of burnout before the pandemic started. We weren’t starting from a good baseline in terms of feeling stressed and anxious,” says Santos.

“Even though in theory we have more freedom and flexibility, in practice, working from home sometimes means that the work seeps into other hours of our day.”

Santos describes her own experience that led to the tough decision to take a leave of absence. “During the pandemic, doing a lot of the work that I do as a head of college was really difficult,” she says.

“There are these three different parts of burnout that have been identified by scientists, and one of these is a sense of personal ineffectiveness. You just don’t feel like you’re good at your job any more. I was starting to experience that a lot in my role as head of college, where we couldn’t throw events for students. We didn’t even have a graduation for the students in 2020. It was starting to feel like there were these barriers that I couldn’t do my job. I was losing this sense of meaning.

“A second part of burnout is this idea of emotional exhaustion – even when you get a good night’s sleep, you’re just not feeling rested. And there was a lot of that going on for me, in part because of the pandemic” and in part because she’d “wound up somehow with many full-time jobs”.

“But finally, and maybe most insidiously, what I was noticing was a real sense of what researchers called depersonalisation. You’re kind of frustrated with other people, you’re really cynical about people and their motives. Someone asks you an innocent and completely reasonable question, and you get kind of pissy with them. I was really noticing this in myself, both with my colleagues and my students.

“And I realised, wait a minute; these are warning signals. These signals are telling me that if you don’t take some action, if you don’t take a break, if you don’t shift things around, things are only going to get worse. And so I made the really difficult decision to take some time off.

“What I want other people to learn from my experience is that you have to take the signs seriously, they don’t get better. Sometimes, if you let these things run their course, you get to a point of burnout where it’s really, really difficult to come back in the same way. And I didn’t want to get there.”

Stop chasing passions

Some research suggests that the western world’s fixation with the idea that we should find passion and excitement in our work may not be helping.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2021 looked at research involving 1.2 million students from 59 countries. It found that more individualistic societies in the West – including Ireland – put a high emphasis on passion as a predicator of success. In more collectivist societies, other things such as parental support, obligation and duty are seen as more important. The researchers note that there isn’t even a direct translation for the word “passion” in Thai and Mandarin.

Robertson distinguishes between two types of happiness. Hedonic happiness is tied to experiencing pleasurable emotions and sensations and is transitory and ultimately elusive. Eudaimonic happiness, which comes from focusing on the value of one’s actions, is more beneficial in the long term. Having a sense of purpose – whether it’s building a garden or increasing your step count – can contribute to a eudaimonic sense of happiness.

One of the problems with the happiness industry is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the different kinds of happiness. For every scientifically sound piece of advice, there is some other total bunkum about “amazing supernatural forces that can make you happy”, says Robertson. “To the extent that the happiness industry is delivering scientifically validated things, it’s excellent. To the extent that portraying voodoo stuff about just visualising success and you’ll become successful, it’s nonsense.”

The bottom line is that if you want to be happy, he says: “Be less materialistic, be more altruistic, have more gratitude, do less comparison with others. These all involve goals other than happiness.”

The paradox of happiness is that if you make it the byproduct rather than the goal itself, you might find you get there faster.

HOW TO BE HAPPY – WHAT REALLY WORKS

“There are some scientifically sound things people can do with their own minds, which we don’t learn in school unfortunately but which are as important as reading and writing,” says Prof Ian Robertson. These include living in the moment, rather than constantly allowing your attention to drift to the future or the past. Practising mindfulness is a proven way of learning to control your attention.

“Don’t compare yourself to others.” Social media makes this way too easy. One assignment that Prof Laurie Santos set for her Yale students was to take a social media break.

Gratitude is a “great antidote to competitive comparison”, says Robertson. “Write a gratitude journal – but as little as once a week is fine. Daily can make it a chore.”

"Call a friend instead of settling in for a Netflix binge. We completely underestimate the power of other people to improve our mood and to make us feel happier," says Santos.

“Focus on caring for others rather than self-care.

“Time affluence is key to happiness,” adds Santos. “If you subjectively feel like you have a little bit more free time, that can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. And so many of us are feeling time-famished right now.”

Getting back “more free time can be a huge way to improve your happiness”.

Read More

Recommended