A New Effective Approach to Pursuing Happiness

A New Effective Approach to Pursuing Happiness

Whether the pursuit of happiness leads to actual happiness or whether it backfires has been debated for a long time. However, it seems that almost everyone, independently of their nationality or culture, wants to be happy (Diener, Saptya, & Suh, 1998). Research does confirm the benefits of happiness for mental and physical health (Steptoe, Dockray, & Wardle, 2009). Positive emotions predict higher quality relationships, improved physical health, and better work performance (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).

However, explicitly pursuing happiness may be very tricky. When one tries to maximize their feelings of happiness in the moment, it may backfire. In a study participants were asked to read one of two articles and then watch a happy or sad film clip (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011). The participants, who read an article about the benefits of being able to make oneself feel the greatest amount of happiness from moment to moment, actually felt worse after watching the positive movie clip. Those who read an article with no mention of happiness at all felt happier watching the positive clip. The reasons for the first group’s decrease in mood were disappointment and self-blame. The research shows that when people try to experience extreme levels of happiness in the moment and believe that it is possible, their efforts usually backfire. Another study concluded that even when participants were instructed to just monitor their happiness while listening to ambiguous music, they reported feeling less happy than others who simply listened to the music (Schooler, Ariely, & Lowenstein, 2003). So the simple act of paying continuous attention to one’s level of happiness may actually lead to lower levels of happiness in the end.

A recent study hypothesized that letting go of trying to maximize positive emotions in the moment and instead trying to maximize the likelihood of experiencing spontaneous positive emotions on a day-to-day basis may actually lead to increased happiness overall. This approach is based on an emotion regulation strategy called situation selection, where individuals seek out contexts/situations that likely give rise to or prevent certain emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). The authors theorized that people who regularly prioritize positivity by making decisions about organizing their days in a way where they put themselves in situations in which they are likely to experience happiness, actually feel happier in general. There is some evidence already that supports this hypothesis. The integrative model of sustainable happiness (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) posits that a genetic set point, circumstances and intentional activities make up a person’ overall levels of happiness. Therefore, engaging in pleasant activities may be the most effective way to increase happiness. Positive psychology also claims that engaging in certain pleasant activities, such as writing gratitude letters, engaging in acts of kindness, or learning how to meditate, reliably yields increases in happiness (Parks & Biswas-Diener). Moreover, a well-known and effective strategy to increase positive affect in depressed individuals is pleasant activity scheduling in their everyday life (Lewinsohn, Sullivan, & Grosscup, 1980).

The present study consisted of a sample of 235 adults, who have completed many different surveys that tested whether prioritizing positivity would lead to increased well-being. For instance, the Prioritizing Positivity test included items such as:

A priority for me is experiencing happiness in everyday life.

I look for and nurture my positive emotions.

What I decide to do with my time outside of work is influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions.

I structure my day to maximize my happiness.

My major decisions in life (e.g. the job I choose, the house I buy, etc.) are influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions.

I admire people who make their decisions based on the happiness they will gain.

The study found that prioritizing positivity was associated with more frequent positive emotions, less depressive symptoms, and greater resources such as self-compassion and ego-resilience. The way individuals structure their time or make choices (e.g.: career selection) can have far-reaching implications. Astute situation-selection may lead to a greater likelihood of experiencing positive emotions. Furthermore, habitually using anticipated positivity as part of making major and minor life choices is linked to greater well-being (Ford & Mauss, 2014).

Even though it seems that people who seek out/prioritize positive emotional experiences tend to be happier, the pursuit of happiness is a delicate process. It is a complex process because there are effective and ineffective ways to happiness. For instance, replaying a positive event in one’s mind predicts greater well-being but analyzing a positive life event does the opposite (Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhoof, 2006). Another example is the distinction between obsessive and harmonious passions. Both types of passions can be highly enjoyable but intrinsically motivated (harmonious) passions add more positivity to people’s lives than obsessive passions (Vallerand et al., 2003). Also, people may not always accurately predict which activities will result in happiness. Someone who decides to acquire all the latest fashions may not actually experience more happiness than someone who does not. Therefore it is important to rely on our own experiences and not necessarily listen to others or the media’s ideas of situations that can lead to greater happiness.

Prioritizing Positivity/Happiness References

Catalino, L.I., Algoe, S.B., & Fredrickson, B.L. (2014). Prioritizing positivity: An effective approach to pursuing happiness? Emotion, 14, 1155-1161.

Diener, E., Saptya, J. J., & Suh, E. M. (1998). Subjective well-being is essential to well-being. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 33–37. 

Steptoe, A., Dockray, S., & Wardle, J. (2009). Positive affect and psychobiologicalprocesses relevant to health. Journal of Personality, 77, 1747–1776. 

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855. 

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807–815. 

Schooler, J. W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). The pursuit and assessment of happiness may be self-defeating. In J. Carrillo & I. Brocas (Eds.), The psychology of economic decisions (pp. 41–70). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Handbook of emotion regulation. New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2007.

Parks, A. C., & Biswas-Diener, R. (in press). Positive interventions: Past, present, and future. In T. Kashdan & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Bridging acceptance and commitment therapy and positive psychology: A practitioner’s guide to a unifying framework. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131. 

Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692–708.

Lewinsohn, P. M., Sullivan, J. M., & Grosscup, S. J. (1980). Changing reinforcing events: An approach to the treatment of depression. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 17, 322–334.

Ford, B. Q., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion: When and why wanting to feel happy backfires. In J. Gruber & J. Moskowitz (Eds.), Integrating the light and dark side of positive emotion. (pp. 363–381) Oxford Scholarship Online. Advance online publication. 

Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., . . . Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767.