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The case for caring less about happiness

Everybody wants to be happy. But does making happiness a priority lead to greater well-being?

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University of California psychologist Iris Mauss wanted to find out, so she and her team led a study in which a group of women was instructed to read a fake news article touting the benefits of happiness. The group was told:

“People who report higher than normal levels of happiness experience benefits in their social relationships, professional success, and overall health and well-being. That is, happiness not only feels good, it also carries important benefits: the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular ... In fact, recent research shows that people who are able to achieve the greatest amount of happiness … can experience long-term beneficial outcomes.”

A different group of women reads an article with the same wording with one exception: every reference to “happiness” was replaced with “making accurate judgments.”

The participants then watched one of three short films. One of the clips portrayed a cheerful scenario—an ice-skater winning a gold medal. The researchers found that the women who had been primed to value happiness were less happy after watching the uplifting story than the other participants. This experiment supported the findings of an earlier study by the same team, which revealed that participants who placed a high value on happiness reported lower levels of satisfaction and more symptoms of depression than those who weren’t as fixated on being in a positive state. This is the great paradox of happiness: the more we want it, the more elusive it becomes. As the researchers note, in other contexts valuing a particular result corresponds with achieving it. If getting good grades is really important to you, then it follows that you’ll be more disappointed by a bad grade than someone who cares less about academic success. But you’ll still probably get higher marks overall. But when you set a high goal for happiness and fail to achieve it, there is nowhere to go. It’s like grabbing sand—the harder you try, the more it slips through your fingers. Fortunately, the paradox works in reverse: by honoring your more challenging feelings, you can also enjoy greater well-being. If you place a high value on happiness, then you’ll probably try to push unhappy feelings away when they arise. “Turn that frown upside down!” And so forth.

But Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of “Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion”, says that doesn’t work. “You can’t really push feelings away. What you’re really doing is just suppressing or repressing them. That creates a contraction that’s associated with stress,” he says. For example, if your boss chastises you for making a mistake, your body and mind will probably tense—it’s a basic fight, flight, or freeze response. Rejecting that feeling of stress and fear will only make you tighten up more, causing further anxiety. But if you can learn to soften into that feeling, to take a few deep breaths and simply pay attention to what is happening in your body, you can start to calm down and get more clarity. “Basically, you’re saying ‘yes’ to this feeling. It’s not that I want this, but it’s here and I can accept it and create space for it. Then your body starts to soften and your mind starts to soften,” says Goldstein. At this point, you can start to take a look at what is actually happening in your body—tense shoulders, constricted chest, sour stomach, etc. Then you can give this feeling a name—sadness, anxiety, guilt, fear, and so on. “Now you’re choosing to do this. You feel more in control and the brain gets to calm down a bit,” says Goldstein. You can also start to figure out what you need. Maybe you need to roll your shoulders and release some tension. Maybe you need to take a walk around the block. Maybe you need to have a conversation with your boss about what went wrong and how it can be prevented next time. Or maybe you need to talk to yourself the way a good friend would. The more you can relax and be gentle with yourself, the better able you’ll be to find some peace and clarity. You’ll also be developing the habit of taking care of yourself in the moment, learning to be more at ease with whatever difficult emotions come your way. “It’s just like riding a bike or learning to play piano: the more we do it, the better we get at it, the stronger we feel,” says Goldstein. “We need that discomfort and difficulty to actually strengthen ourselves.” So the next time you’re feeling upset, remember that these feelings don’t make you an emotional failure. They make you a human being who now has the opportunity to become more resilient and, ultimately, more content.

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