It’s hard to imagine now. But just two decades ago, the field of positive psychology was far from mainstream. Most researchers and clinicians focused their energies on mental illness, and on identifying the negative behaviors or thought patterns that fueled disorders.
All that changed in 1998 when the renowned University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman made positive psychology the theme of his term as president of the American Psychological Association. Since then, thousands of academic papers, self-improvement books, and TED Talks have addressed the subject of happiness—and how best to cultivate it. Since 2012, the United Nations has been commissioning annual World Happiness Reports, which seek to monitor “the state of global happiness.”
For Americans—a people for whom the pursuit of happiness is a foundational principle consecrated in our Declaration of Independence—striving for happiness seems both proper and natural. There’s just one problem: We don't have good evidence that prioritizing happiness makes people happy. In fact, research shows pursuing happiness may be a great way to make yourself miserable.
A 2011 study found that striving for happiness can be “self-defeating,” and that priming people to value happiness was a great way to make them feel like crap. After splitting study subjects into two groups, the researchers told one group that “the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular.” Afterward, this happiness-primed group reacted less positively to a fun activity and felt worse after a mildly stressful one. “The more people value happiness,” the authors of that study concluded, “the more likely they will feel disappointed.”
In a similar study, this one from 2014, researchers found seeking happiness could raise a person’s risk for depression. How? “As people pursue happiness, they may monitor their attainment of this goal, and the act of monitoring can impair their ability to actually achieve happiness,” says Brett Ford, first author of that study and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
In other words, it’s not the pursuit of happiness that’s the problem. It’s keeping tabs on whether or not you feel happy that tanks your mood. (In a book chapter Ford coauthored, she quotes the American philosopher Eric Hoffer, who said, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”) All of this suggests the more we all walk around thinking about our happiness levels and how to elevate them, the less likely we are to actually feel happy.
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Even the ways we define happiness may be fraught. Most of us think of a happy person as one filled with positivity and optimism. But a study published earlier this year found embracing “right” or situation-appropriate emotions—even negative emotions like fear and sadness—is more likely to produce happiness than trying to feel pleasant emotions all the time.
“We all feel sad, anxious or angry at times,” says that study’s author, Maya Tamir, an associate professor of psychology at the Hebrew University in Israel. “If we learn to accept these emotions and see the value in them, we are more likely to be happy overall.”
“There are many different valid definitions of happiness,” adds Lahnna Catalino, an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College in California. Catalino agrees that trying to maximize happiness from moment to moment “may backfire.” But she has also published research showing that “prioritizing positivity”—or trying to structure your day around stuff that makes you happy—can boost your well-being.
Yes, this is the point where we swing back toward the self-help precept that you can do stuff to make yourself happier. And all the experts cited above say this is possible. At the same time, the notion that thinking about and striving for greater happiness will pay off is debatable. In the end, it may be helpful to think of happiness like sleep; there are steps you can take to improve both, but spending a lot of time thinking about them isn’t one of those steps.
“Accepting one’s emotions, and not pursuing any particular emotional goal, even happiness,“ Ford says, “may be an effective pathway to greater well-being.“
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