Did you know that making happiness your ultimate goal may be doing you more harm than good?
It sounds like a Catch-22, but this is what’s known as the happiness paradox.
While we’d like to think that happiness – like any other goal – can be achieved by pursuing it more relentlessly, the truth is more complex. Simply put, happiness is not another box we can check off.
One of the keys to being happy is, ironically, to stop trying to be happy.
Happiness doesn’t involve forcing or pressuring yourself to feel any type of way.
What the happiness paradox teaches us is that trying to be happy can actually take our attention and energy away from the things that bring us joy. So stop analyzing your happiness – it could be hurting your mental health.
What is the Happiness Paradox?
The happiness paradox is the phenomena in which chasing happiness can actually make you feel less happy. You may be wondering, why is this so?
In general, a fixation on any emotional state makes it more elusive. Consider the last time you felt anxious about something. Did wishing your anxiety would go away help ease your mind? Probably not. Thinking about your anxiety most likely made you more aware of it.
Fixating on and assigning meaning to your feelings – whether positive or negative – only increases the pressure to feel a certain way or another.
Remember, we can’t change how we feel. We can, however, change the way we respond to our emotions.
Does Chasing Happiness Make You Depressed?
The pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily make you depressed. But if you are solely focused on achieving happiness, it may cause you stress and anxiety – the opposite effect of what you’re looking for.
Happiness research has shown that people who spend more of their energy pursuing happiness end up feeling more time-scarcity and pressure – and thus, less contentment.
One of the main reasons why chasing happiness might make you depressed is that in trying to achieve happiness, you are focused on what you don’t have instead of being grateful for what you do have. When you feel as though you are “lacking” something, it’s no wonder why you may feel discontent.
Instead, consider practicing gratitude. Gratitude has been consistently shown to increase happier feelings. It can help you feel more positive emotions, strengthen your relationships, and even improve your health.
Are Women More Likely to Suffer from the Happiness Paradox?
Some studies have shown that women may suffer from the “female happiness paradox”, which refers to the phenomena that women are unhappier than men when it comes to present emotional state, overall life satisfaction, and the frequency of negative emotions.
While this could lead to the simple conclusion that women are unhappier (and perhaps more susceptible to the happiness paradox) than men, we have to remember the gender inequities that exist in our society that can impact a person’s happiness.
When you consider how much women must cope with, it becomes easy to see why women may not be as happy when compared to men.
For example, threats against their physical safety and bodily autonomy, pay inequities, an unequal division of labor, micro-aggressions, and much, much more.
Instead of buying into the idea that women suffer from a so-called “female happiness paradox”, we should be asking ourselves, what might be causing this disparity in happiness, and how can we as a society work toward greater equality?
How to Stop Chasing Happiness
So if chasing happiness only brings us greater dissatisfaction, what can we do to be happier in our lives? While we don’t have the secret to happiness, we do have 5 tips on how to cultivate more happiness.
1. Live in the moment:
Happiness is a feeling just like anger, frustration, stress, etc. Happiness comes and goes. It’s not a fixed state. Thinking happiness can be “achieved” is an illusion in and of itself.
Many of us believe that when we get a certain job, relationship, or material possession, we’ll be happy. But we find that when we achieve what we believe will make us happy, that feeling dissipates, similar to any other feeling.
Rather than chasing an impossible state of lasting bliss, choose instead to fully embrace the present moment. Let go of the idea that happiness resides somewhere in the future once you’ve achieved whatever it is you think you need to achieve. Accept that happiness – like any other emotion – comes and goes.
2. Don’t avoid negative feelings:
In an attempt to increase our own happiness, we may think that we need to suppress our negative emotions, like fear, anxiety, and sadness. But happiness can only exist alongside our wider spectrum of emotions.
There’s a saying that goes, there is no light without darkness. In the same way, happiness can’t exist in a vacuum. In order to experience happiness, we must also accept that there will be moments of sadness, frustration, or fear.
Feelings are not inherently good or bad. They simply are. Trying to avoid your negative emotions may actually make them grow larger and hinder your ability to achieve happiness. Living a happy, good life means embracing the full spectrum of human emotion.
3. Accept that happiness isn’t always easy:
When we picture happiness, we may imagine a feeling of ease and lightness. While this can be true in the short-term, happiness doesn’t always equate to a lack of challenges. Sometimes overcoming an obstacle or challenge can be incredibly rewarding.
In order for us to create joy and contentment in our lives, we must expand our definition of happiness. It isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.
Sometimes happiness means giving up something that makes us happy in the moment for something that might bring us greater joy in the long run. It’s not about instant gratification. Remember that good things take time and hard work.
4. Cultivate your relationships:
Interestingly, when we pursue happiness, we often go at it alone. The isolation and lack of community that comes with fiercely pursuing your own goals can actually make you unhappy.
A main source of happiness for many people are their loved ones and community.
Collectivist societies, in general, tend to rate their own happiness higher than individualistic societies.
This is no coincidence. People and community are essential to our happiness and wellbeing. So invest in those around you and your community – you won’t regret it.
5. Let go of your expectations:
We often believe that our present selves can predict what will make our future selves happy. So we spend all of our time agonizing over decisions that we believe will make us happy in the future.
However, did you know that humans are notoriously bad at predicting our future emotional state? We may think we know what is best for our future selves – for example, that an action will make us either happy or unhappy – but the reality isn’t so clear cut.
People, more often than not, cannot predict what will make them happy. We tend to see everything through the lens of either our current state or our recent past, which makes our predictions of the future unreliable.
So let go of your expectations of what should make you happy and instead focus more on what is making you happy in the now – and move in that general direction.
If you’re struggling to achieve the joy and contentment you’re looking for in life, therapy can help. Call for a free consultation today.