Opinion: if the pursuit of happiness makes us feel better, how come we're wracked by depression, anxiety and other lifestyle diseases?
The self-improvement industry is growing rapidly year on year, and its best-selling topic is happiness. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin hit the bestseller lists within minutes of being published. Cheryl Strayed's book Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail turned into a box-office phenomenon with gross sales hitting almost €50 million and a trail of coaches, consultants and "gurus" following who have made their money advising others how to be happy.
But if the pursuit of happiness makes us feel better, how come our society is wracked by depression, anxiety and other lifestyle diseases? Is it possible that we got it all wrong? Positive psychology, the science of wellbeing, may have some answers to these questions.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Paul D'Alton from UCD on why it is the pursuit of happiness that is making us miserable
Over the last two decades, researchers in positive psychology have endeavoured to unpack what it means to be well and happy and have also tried to identify the myths of happiness that stand in the way of people feeling better. Research with adults and adolescents suggests that valuing happiness and pursuing it excessively is linked to lower levels of wellbeing and even increased experiences of depression and bipolar. Here are three evidence-based reasons why the pursuit of happiness might not be helpful for us, and may even be harmful if taken too far.
(1) Upward comparison
The day we decide to pursue happiness is the day we realise we are unhappy and want to do something about it. If happiness were a measuring stick, we see it in our mind's eye and place ourselves somewhere along its length. This spectrum reminds us that others are happier than us. Worse yet, we are reminded that our future selves will be happier than we are today. This is how we become more deficit-focused, which makes us feel worse.
One of the hallmarks of happiness is an ability to see what we already have for which we are grateful, regardless of how small it is. What helps us do this is downward comparison, whereby we look at others who are worse-off than us and we feel blessed that our situation is not as bad, which as selfish as it sounds, makes us feel more grateful, thus happier.
From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, Prof Brendan Kelly on his new book The Science of Happiness
However, the opposite happens when we begin to pursue happiness and value it too much in our lives. Instead of practicing downward comparison, we practice upward comparison. We start thinking of what others have that we do not have, which results in us feeling more miserable. This is one of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is often associated with decline in wellbeing and experiences of depression.
(2) 'Being self-centred does not serve us well'
We tend to become self-centred when pursuing happiness. We are focused on ourselves and not others. We think about what we want to get from life, not what we can give. Yet, research indicates that others' focus has a more powerful effect on our happiness. When we help others, it means that we have something valuable to give them. This increases our self-esteem making us feel happier.
Being self-centred does not serve us well because an inward focus makes us less mindful of the outside world. Yet, it is the people around us that can help us become happier. We smile 30 times more when in a group than on our own. Supporting others and knowing that we can receive support when needed is more likely to enhance our happiness than aloneness. People matter but we may forget to reach out to others by focusing too much on self, which is why the pursuit of happiness can make us lonelier.
From TED, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger on lessons from the world's longest study on happiness
(3) Overthinking happiness and a decline in wellbeing
When we value happiness too much, it prevents us from maximising our positive experiences and enjoying our lives. When we try to figure out why we feel bad, it has the potential of enhancing our wellbeing. When we try to figure out and overthink happiness, it is associated with a decline in wellbeing.
We become so stressed about finding situations that boost our wellbeing that we don't fully engage with the opportunities at hand which make us happier. Furthermore, when we are happy, we start worrying about losing happiness, which ultimately reduces our wellbeing further. This is yet another reason why pursuing happiness may be detrimental to us.
Happiness is not something we can catch and keep. It is a journey, not a destination. Don't ask yourself 'am I happy?' 'Am I happier than last year?' 'How can I become happier?' Insteada, focus on living a good life. Introduce healthy behaviours such as eating well, moving and sleeping soundly. Engage your mind in positive practices, such as reflecting on what went well for you, savouring the good times, boosting your optimism and hopeful thinking. All these activities will impromptu result in enhanced happiness and help you go on a happiness ride filled with peaks and troughs. After all, this is what life is all about.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ