Stop Worrying About Being Happy, Study Urges, Because It'll Make You Miserable

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As someone who has struggled with depression since middle school, I can understand the constant desire to master happiness. Society says to be happy is to have everything; if you’re happy, you’ll be rich, have a good job, and suddenly manifest into a constantly smiling, photogenic person. The problem is, happiness is a fluid concept that’s nearly impossible to nail down. And as paper recently published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review urged, try not to stress out about being happy, because you’ll only end up feeling miserable.

A quick Google Trend search will show, as Medical News Today reported, that global interest in the question “how to be happy” has been steady over the past five years. A related query, “how to be happy or at least less sad,” has most interest in the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years.

People are pretty relentless in their pursuit of happiness, tying it into themes of success that dominate modern culture. And the ironic thing is, even if someone is already happy, they still want to feel happier. This ties back into the fluidity of happiness; as much as society tries to construct one, there’s not actually a clearly defined point where someone can say, “Here it is. I reached Happy”.

About 70 percent of people rated happiness as important, according to the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review paper — which was titled “Vanishing Time In the Pursuit of Happiness" — with only 1 percent reporting that happiness was never a focus of theirs. To the world’s majority, happiness is a positive goal that can always be worked towards. And it makes sense; for example, if you don’t have a specific set of goals in mind for your New Year's resolution, it’s always easy to say you want to be happier and think more positively.

But the issue with focusing on happiness is that it also requires people to focus on the opposite. In order to track how many happy days, people also have to track how unhappy they are, which leads into a paradoxical spiral, according to the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

This spiral can lead to the development of loneliness, an actual reduction of happiness itself, and scarcity of time. Because happiness has no clear definition or end point and can stimulate unhappiness itself, a pursuer becomes all too aware of how little time there remains in order to be happy, as the study found. “Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” Aekyoung Kim and Sam Maglio, two of the researchers, said, according to Medical News Today.

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Essentially, once happiness becomes a signifier of potential, and not simply about being happy in the moment, it begins to have a negative impact.

American culture has been critiqued for a dependence on instant gratification, with younger generations like millennials being targeted in particular. Study Breaks classified it as the culture of impatience and, while that can be true, there’s clearly more to the story. Because for all that younger generations have been introduced to same-day shipping and 4G data, they’ve also been told that the key to success is found within their own happiness.

That message, and the sense of vanishing time accompanying it, is part of what leads to a demand for instant gratification. Kim and Maglio noted of their findings, according to Women's Health:

Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoy leisure experiences.
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There has been writings about the benefits of retail therapy, where it ties into relaxation and escape, according to Psychology Today, but everything can be bad if not practiced in moderation. If the ultimate motivation for retail therapy is a struggle to regain control of time, then perhaps it’s not the best motivational tactic.

So what can be done about it? The researchers involved with the paper aren’t suggesting that people never bother being happy. Happiness as an experience, and an emotion, are valid. But, instead of making happiness into some sort of trademarked destination, it needs to be understood as what it is: an emotion and an experience. Happiness is not stagnant, so people need to be comfortable with the idea that it will come and go. And maybe, if people don’t focus too much on the idea of happiness but on living in general, it may come faster than expected.

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