Academics and Research / News

Seeking happiness could make individuals depressed

Iris Mauss finds that the pursuit of happiness can lead to depression.

The nation’s founding fathers considered the “pursuit of happiness” an unalienable right.

With its inclusion in the Declaration of Independence, Americans were provided with a lofty goal: to seek happiness. Over time, self-help books, television shows and popular culture have offered a seemingly unending supply of advice for achieving a happier life. It’s so deeply ingrained that few Americans today question the wisdom of seeking happiness.

Iris Mauss and her collaborators did.

Mauss is an assistant professor in the University of Denver Department of Psychology. Wondering whether there might be a hidden downside in trying to be happy, Mauss embarked on two research studies, funded in part by the National Institute on Aging.

Mauss and her colleagues — Craig Anderson (BA psychology ’07) from the University of California-Berkeley, Maya Tamir from Boston College and Hebrew University and Nicole Savino (BA psychology ’10) — published their research findings in the April 25, 2011, online issue of Emotion, a publication of the American Psychological Association. The article “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness” describes their research and results.

In the first study, participants who had experienced a stressful life event within the prior six months completed surveys designed to reveal how much they valued happiness and how those values related to their happiness and well-being. In the second study, Mauss and her fellow researchers manipulated study participants by assigning them to either a “valuing happiness” or a control group. They then showed participants either happy or sad two-minute film clips and had them rate their experiences of positive or negative emotions.

Both studies showed that valuing happiness could be self-defeating.  Overall, participants who valued happiness more tended to be less satisfied and reported lower psychological well-being and greater levels of depression symptoms. This was especially true in positive situations when people felt they had every reason to be happy (under low life stress and after the happy film clip). The effect was mediated by feelings of disappointment, suggesting why valuing happiness may be self defeating. Together these studies lead to the conclusion that, paradoxically, valuating happiness may lead people to be less happy just when happiness is within their reach.

Mauss says this doesn’t mean pursuing happiness is always self-defeating.

“It might very well be possible to make yourself happier, but you have to go about it in a smart way. One smart way seems to be to engage in activities that you know make you happy but without trying to be happy. Another smart way in which people can actually make themselves happier seems to be to foster and engage in high quality social relationships.  And what’s important again is that the goal is not to make yourself happier, but rather the goal is to spend time with people you love or do things that you like doing and so happiness is then an unintended outcome,” Mauss says.

This research lends credence to “acceptance-based” therapies, which Mauss describes as those that rely on the core idea that it’s important to accept the negative as well as the positive. In other words, stop worrying about being happy.

“The zeitgeist of making people feel like they should be happy also carries with it a certain blame if you’re not happy,” Mauss explains. “In those people whose lives are going well we find these self-defeating effects because basically they have no one to blame but themselves and that’s why [pursuing happiness] goes along with discontent and disappointment.”

June Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, has worked with Mauss on several research projects. Gruber’s work focuses on understanding the potential downsides of positive emotions and their potential negative mental health consequences.

“The work that Iris has done on the pursuit of happiness has had a phenomenal impact in the areas of emotion research, positive psychology and general personality. It even has implications for clinical psychology,” Gruber says. “Her work found data to support this counterintuitive idea that really goes against a lot of what psychologists had thought.”

Mauss says while the results were surprising at first, they made a lot of sense. She will follow up with further research about happiness, including explorations of what is responsible for the self-defeating effects observed and the roles that social connections and cultural definitions of happiness might play in happiness levels.

Tags: ,

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *