This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.
To pose the question of whether we can love happiness in today’s world feels a bit like asking whether the Pope is Catholic. Most of us believe we not only can love happiness, but that we should! Unfortunately, it is this very love of happiness that is leading many of us to experience more sadness.
Why, I hear you ask? Well let me start with an example. Imagine you have a goal and it is to become smarter. You decide to enrol in an science degree and major in astrophysics (being an astrophysicist is clearly going to make you smarter), you spend every spare minute playing Sudoku and purchase the latest “get smart quick” brainpower gimmick.
Over time you notice that indeed you are becoming smarter. You are winning more often at Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit and can amaze your friends with complex theories of black holes and dark energy.
Yet, you would still like to be smarter. You feel slightly disappointed that you are not as smart as you thought you might be. This feeling of disappointment motivates you to learn more and try harder until eventually you reach your goal.
Now imagine that your goal is to be happy. You buy the latest books on how to be happy, repeat positive sentiments to yourself in the mirror each morning and spend at least ten minutes a day holding a pencil between your teeth (it’s true, it actually does work!).
Upon reflection, however, you are not as happy as you would like to be. Now, the feeling of disappointment, rather than motivating you to try hard, tends to make you feel less happy. As a result, you are now further removed from your desired state of happiness.
The nature of goal pursuit itself predicts this ironic outcome. Aiming for a goal often involves feelings of disappointment along the way, which means that trying to be happy may be counter-productive.
The aim of this illustration is to show that the very act of trying to be happy ironically pushes happiness further away. The most powerful strategy for achieving happiness is to give up trying to be happy.
Living in a world of laughing clowns
Consistent with the above insights, current approaches within psychotherapy have begun to challenge how people relate to their own emotions. People walk out of these sessions more accepting of their negative emotions and holding less tightly to the need to be happy.
As they walk out of the therapist’s door, however, they are confronted with a world that is beset by happiness. From advertising on billboards and television screens to national campaigns designed to raise national levels of happiness, the value of happiness is promoted everywhere.
On the flip side, our Western world values sadness very differently. In some cases even everyday malaise is quickly pathologised and medicalised, and treated with drugs designed to return people to “normality”.
Indeed, there is an eerie similarity between our current approaches to our emotional worlds and the kind of dystopian society that Aldous Huxley envisaged in his book Brave New World.
Our own research has begun to highlight the possibility that “happiness cultures” may be responsible for reducing life satisfaction and increasing depression. This is especially true when people experience high levels of negative emotion and feel that these emotional states are socially devalued.
Experiencing this mismatch between our own emotional states and those that are considered valuable by the cultures that we live in may even leave us feeling lonely and socially disconnected.
So should we hate happiness?
I am certainly not suggesting we should all dress in black and revel in our shared despair. Being happy is a good thing and it is exactly this state that we are all so keen to achieve.
The point is that we often go about this in the wrong way. We fail to value negative experiences along the way and think that striving for more and more pleasure and enjoyment is the best way to achieve our happiness goals.
The fact is that endless pleasure, and endless happiness, quickly becomes very dull and even painful. For true well-being we need contrasts. Our negative experiences and negative feelings give meaning and context to happiness: they make us happier overall. As our own research suggests, pain has many positive consequences and experiencing pain is often a critical pathway to flourishing in life.
So can we love happiness? I think we can. It is not so much our love of happiness, but our dislike of sadness, the tendency to run away from pain and suffering and to see these experiences as a sign of failure, that leads to the problems I describe above.
Perhaps our problem with happiness comes about because we live in a world where we believe we can control everything in our lives. From our temperature-controlled homes to our capacity to insure against every possible risk, we believe we should have the same level of control over our emotional lives.
There is an oft-quoted saying (commonly found on a wall calendar at your grandmother’s house), “If you love something set it free”. Perhaps that is how we should be thinking about happiness?
This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).
You can read other articles in the series here.