Everyone wants to be happy, and yet happiness can often be difficult to achieve, in part because we’ve been taught very misguided notions of what it takes to attain lasting emotional well-being. For example: people often assume they’d be happier if they just had a little more money, but studies have found that, after you’ve reached a certain salary, your happiness actually declines due to stress and lack of leisure time.
Another common belief is that happiness is something that you have to work very hard on to achieve. But a new study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review says that the opposite is actually true: people who try too hard to be happy end up actually being unhappy, because their dogged pursuit of happiness takes up too much of their time.
Researchers Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada, conducted four studies to see how the pursuit of happiness was connected to perceptions of time availability.
In the first, they asked 113 online participants to complete a personality questionnaire, in which a link was first established between trying to be happy and feeling like it cuts down on your time.
In the second study, they asked 107 undergraduate students to watch a boring film and a slapstick comedy; one group was instructed to “try” to feel happy during the boring film, while the other was told to let their emotions flow naturally. The former group felt that the movie had been a waste of time, whereas the latter saw watching it as an achieved goal.
The last two studies involved surveys, the latter of which asked people to rate their relation to happiness and time. Consistent with the results of the other experiments, those who identified as “seeking happiness” rated time as scarcer than those not deliberately working towards happiness.
“Unlike other goals, pursuing happiness rarely leads to attaining happiness,” the study reads. “Instead, seeking happiness more often, ironically, decreases happiness, in turn causing a previous act of seeking happiness to prompt continued behavior devoted toward the same objective (i.e., acts of seeking happiness).”
Plainly put: the more you seek happiness, the less time you feel you have, the more unhappy you become. This then turns into a vicious cycle of unhappiness.
The lesson of this paradox of happiness is, essentially, to just chill out.
If you stop chasing happiness so hard, and just take a moment to relax and appreciate your life and its blessings, before you know it, you might find yourself blanketed in happiness.
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