In the last week of December 1999, a group of researchers emailed their friends, colleagues, and various listservs to ask about their plans for New Year’s Eve. They recorded how big a party a person planned to attend, how much fun they expected to have, and how much time and money they would dedicate to their festivities. This survey was not, as it may seem, an endeavor to find the most raucous and decadent New Year’s Eve party—but an attempt to capture the fleeting nature of pleasure and happiness.
Of the 475 people who responded in their field study, 83 percent felt disappointed with their night. How much of a good time they expected to have, along with how much time they had spent preparing, predicted their disappointment.
Anyone who has looked forward to special days like birthdays, vacations, holidays, or, say, “hotvax summers,” knows these anticipated delights can be a letdown. The happiness, pleasure, and fun we expect to have doesn’t measure up to reality. This phenomenon has a name: the paradox of hedonism, or, sometimes, the paradox of happiness. It’s the strange but persistent observation that pleasure often vanishes when you try to pursue it directly. Simply put, if you try too hard at happiness, the result is unhappiness.
There’s a useful analogy for the paradox based on an apocryphal quote attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
“If you’re huffing and puffing, trying as hard as you can to snatch up butterflies, they’re just going to fly away and you’re not going to get them,” said Dan Weijers, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Waikato and the co-editor of the International Journal of Wellbeing. “But if you sit quietly, preferably in the lotus position, the butterfly might land on your shoulder—the butterfly being happiness.”
The paradox of hedonism is especially frustrating given how much emphasis is put on being happy—not just as the ideal emotional state, but often as a marker of individual personal and professional success. “[A] cornerstone of western thought is the assumption that the explicit pursuit of happiness is and should be a primary source of human motivation,” wrote the authors of the New Year’s Eve study. But since seeking happiness explicitly is so often self-defeating, doing so can cause a descent into what one research paper called a “happiness-seeking spiral.”
As people have bounded back into life and sought out heightened levels of happiness and pleasure after a difficult year, the paradox is a friendly reminder that it’s completely normal for that ambition to backfire. Psychological research can help explain why: The paradox arises from a mixture of heightened expectations, diverted focus from meaningful activities, individualistic notions of happiness, and possibly the very nature of pleasure itself. Still, there may be some ways to avoid crashing head on into the hedonic paradox, simply by knowing it exists.
In a series of sermons in the 1700s, the philosopher and bishop Joseph Butler was one of the first to characterize the paradox of hedonism. He said that if a person’s own happiness “wholly engrosses us, and leaves no room for any other Principle, there can be absolutely no such thing at all as Happiness, or Enjoyment of any Kind whatever.” In the mid 1800s, the philosopher John Stuart Mill similarly wrote in his autobiography, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Almost 100 years later, the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
This long-held intuition has now been validated across dozens of psychological studies. It’s been shown repeatedly that overvaluing happiness is counterproductive. When wanting to be happy is made the absolute goal, it reliably leads people to feel less happy. “And, people are at greater risk for clinical mood difficulties, which is a really compelling finding,” said June Gruber, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
One experiment found that when people were instructed to try to be happy while listening to “hedonically ambiguous music,” they ended up in worse moods than a group of people who weren’t given any instructions. Another determined that people who valued happiness reported less happiness when watching happy films. Telling people to try to be happy while watching something boring, or asking them to list activities that would make them happier in the future made them feel like they had less leisure time, and lowered their well-being.
Psychologists have since tried to unpack why deliberate attempts at happiness make us unhappy. As Weijers and his PhD student Lorenzo Buscicchi wrote in the Conversation, it’s less of a paradox and more of an “empirical irony.” “Normally valuable things are achieved by striving for them, but according to ancient wisdom, happiness bucks this trend,” they pointed out.
There are several explanations, which likely all play a role. One is that people pursue happiness in the wrong ways, because they’re not great at predicting what ultimately will make them happy. Alexander Dietz, a lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University, calls this the incompetence account. For example, a person might think that getting a promotion will lead to happiness. But they fixate on the moment when they hear about the promotion, and how it will feel, and then assume that the happy feeling will last indefinitely, when it will actually fade quite quickly.
Social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have described a similar phenomenon called affective forecasting, or “prospection.” This occurs when we try to predict how we might feel in the future, but do so using mental simulations that can be missing important contextual clues, or are influenced by how we feel in the moment. “For example, hungry people mistakenly expect to like eating spaghetti for breakfast the next day, and sated people mistakenly expect to dislike eating it for dinner the next day,” Gilbert and Wilson wrote in a 2007 paper.
When people explicitly try to achieve happiness, it’s also the case that they experience activities, events, or interactions as a means to an emotional end, rather than for the enjoyment of those things. “Activities tend to make us happier when we carry them out without the express goal of wanting them to make us happy,” said Iris Mauss, a social psychologist at University of California in Berkeley.
If you go to a concert and your motivation is to listen to the music, it’s likely you’ll achieve that goal if you actually go to the concert. But if the goal of the concert is to “be happy,” then listening to the band is no longer the primary reason for attending. This both distracts attention from the thing you’re doing (watching a concert) and leads you to tooclosely monitor whether or not you’re happy at any given moment. Then you end up making comparisons between your current emotional state and a hypothetical “happier” state.
“In the moment, it’s best not to think about it,” Weijers said. “When you’re thinking about what you should do next week, you think, ‘I really like hanging out with my friend Mary. I’m going to hang out with them.’ And that’s it. You don’t think about the effect it’s having on your happiness.” If you want to, he said that later you can look back, reflect, savor, and feel gratitude for what happened and reflect on whether it contributed to your overall happiness. Doing so after the moment has passed is much less likely to prevent ruining any happiness you already experienced.
As the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa wrote: “Happiness is found only in little moments of inattention.” Or as the philosopher Henry Sidgwick wrote, to attain pleasure, “we must to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it.”
“Happiness is something that generally tends to creep up on us when we’re not thinking about it,” said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “When we focus on being happy and we start measuring our happiness, it’s a form of self-consciousness that is self-defeating.”
Another important cause of the hedonic paradox is that people tend to set up high happiness standards for themselves when happiness is their primary goal. Higher standards make it easier to be disappointed. “The more we want happiness, the more we obsess over not having it,” Gruber said. “We notice a difference between where we are and where we want to be, and that can lead to distress.”
This can be enhanced, ironically, in happier situations. People generally don’t have high expectations or standards for happiness in troubled or difficult circumstances—like a pandemic. Where expectations for happiness arise are in moments that are supposed to be pleasurable, like a birthday party or New Year’s Eve.
This is something Epicurus, the figurehead of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism, knew well. Though Epicureanism is often misunderstood to have promoted an indulgent lifestyle, Epicurus was an ascetic philosopher. He believed that the key to happiness was balancing your desires with your ability to satisfy them. If you have outrageous desires, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. That’s why he ate and lived very simply; if you only get pleasure out of rich lavish meals, what happens when you don’t have them? Epicurus understood this intrinsic piece of the paradox: that lavish expectations create disappointment.
“Happiness is very much a matter of expectations, not a matter of the objective experience someone has,” Loewenstein said.
Finally, the paradox may be a by-product of the nature of happiness and pleasure itself. Dietz said that one interpretation of pleasure is that it’s brought about by the satisfaction of our desires: We feel happy when we want something, and then we get it. But therein lies the problem. If pleasure comes from satisfying a desire, you need to desire something other than pleasure in order to get it. “If the only thing you want is pleasure itself, then you’re stuck in a vicious circle,” Dietz said. “You need to want other things, and get those desires satisfied, and then you’ll feel pleasure.”
Wanting to be happy is, of course, not a bad thing. The paradox of hedonism is agnostic to the notion of whether or not we should be pursuing lives of only pleasure, and what kind of pleasures those may be—it just decrees that pursuing pleasure directly often backfires.
Yet it’s an unavoidable truth that the paradox of happiness exists in the context of a society that places incredible emphasis on the pursuit and attainment of happiness—another paradox or empirical irony unto itself. It’s even in our Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right”: “The happiness of society is the first law of every government,” said the American founding father James Wilson.
These shifts occurred culturally in the 18th century, said Darrin McMahon, a professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of Happiness: A History. For the first time, happiness wasn’t something to be achieved through virtue or religious devotion. Rather, happiness was our innate state, something that governments had a responsibility to provide and maintain—and if you weren’t happy you were doing something wrong.
McMahon said this extended into the 19th and 20th centuries. “More and more people believe that they are supposed to be happy, and that happiness is kind of a natural phenomenon,” he said. “It’s not like those ancient wisdom traditions that taught that happiness is a product of a life devoted to the craft of living.”
On the one hand, it’s liberating that we’re not condemned to suffering, and that we all have a right to pursue happiness, McMahon said. But it does also create a situation that McMahon calls “the unhappiness of not being happy,” which is more pronounced if you believe that you’re supposed to be happy.
“I do think there’s a misguided cultural prioritization on happiness,” Gruber said. “It’s written into our cultural and legal scripts of life, especially in the U.S. We need to rewrite those societal norms and pressures.”
It may not only be this outsize emphasis on happiness, but how American culture defines happiness, that leads to misery. An intriguing finding is that social activities don’t provoke the happiness paradox as much—meaning that setting out to be happy with friends or loved ones doesn’t lead to the same levels of disappointment. “We don’t know exactly why that’s the case,” Mauss said. It might be because social activities have a resonating effect: You’re interacting with another person, and they respond in kind.
In cross-cultural work, Mauss and her former student, the University of Toronto psychologist Brett Ford, and their colleagues found that study participants from Russia, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States all said that happiness was important to them. But these cultures had different associations with happiness; they differed in how strongly people thought of happiness as an individual pursuit or a social one.
East Asian cultures were the most socially oriented. They said that pursuing happiness was related to the happiness of their families or connecting with friends. The Russians were similarly socially oriented, but a little less so, the Germans followed, and the Americans were the least socially oriented in describing happiness.
In the U.S. sample, the more people valued happiness, the less happy they were—the happiness paradox. But it was explained by the fact that they didn’t think of happiness in socially oriented terms; in fact, the reverse was true for the East Asians in the study.
“For them, we didn’t find the happiness paradox,” Mauss said. “The more they valued happiness, the happier they actually were. That was explained by the fact that they see happiness in a more socially oriented way.” The researchers concluded that “the downsides to pursuing happiness may be specific to individualistic cultures like the U.S.”
When happiness is made overly individual, and becomes too focused on our own, personal, day-to-day emotions, it can lead to lower well-being, as a recent paper from Mauss’s lab, led by Emily Willroth, found. People who strongly hitch their satisfaction with life to their daily emotions— positive or negative—have lower well-being. This suggests that people are more content who are able to isolate their satisfaction with life from their daily emotions.
“Especially in our U.S. cultural context, we think that to be happy means that we need to get rid of our negative emotions,” Mauss said. “And it’s sort of the flip side of the coin. When we frantically try to avoid our negative emotions, we tend to paradoxically elaborate more on that.”
If you’re trying to embrace a post-pandemic life with more fun, pleasure, and happiness, it could be a good idea to lean on social means to do so—and divorce yourself from the ups and downs of the day. Care about the pleasure and happiness of others, Mauss suggested, and the joy of interacting with them, rather than a fruitless pursuit of individual, momentary happiness. The expectation that any one person can intentionally go about creating their happiness is like a trap, Mauss said—and not just because of the paradox of hedonism.
“We first make [happiness] really important, and then we don’t support the conditions that could make people happy: Social safety networks, standard of living, childcare, paying them a living wage, and so forth,” Mauss said. “We communicate that it’s their own personal responsibility to make themselves happy, and that sets up a really harsh double bind in this culture where we see happiness as sort of individual attainments, as a personal responsibility, without actually giving people the tools to obtain it.”
When we say we want to be happy, it’s a complicated desire. It’s a mix of both in-the-moment positive emotions, but also a longer-term ability to thrive, be well, healthy, supported, and have our needs met. But similar to the paradox, if the goal becomes just the feeling of happiness, and not the activities that might indirectly bring about happiness—we’re unlikely to achieve much.
“I do find it to be a useful reminder that I shouldn’t focus too exclusively on my own happiness,” Dietz said. “I ought to try to get interested in other sorts of things. That’s certainly something that I can fall into. Having that reminder to not focus on that exclusively I think is helpful.”
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