The pursuit of happiness may be making us less happy

Back in 1689, Philosopher John Locke coined the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’. In his book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he first suggested that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.

Nearly a century later, Thomas Jefferson decided that the pursuit of happiness was such a vital part of the human experience that it ought to be included in the United States Declaration of Independence. In this well known passage, it is written that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It seems unquestionable that the pursuit of happiness is a quest that many of us are ready to undertake. For some, happiness is the only goal, and thus far, seeking out what makes you smile has never seemed to be a problem.

Yet, in a study published in Springer on March 12, two scientists have suggested that the pursuit of happiness might not leave us feeling so happy after all.

Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough have conducted four studies with the aim of trying to understand how the pursuit of happiness, and the state of being happy, can influence people’s perception of time.

In the studies, participants were asked to either list things that would make them happy, or to try and conjure a feeling of happiness whilst watch a boring video.

Conjuring happiness in a dull situation was meant to represent the pursuit of happiness, whilst the first group of participants came to think of happiness as a goal that they had already accomplished – achieved by writing down things that make them happy.

Afterwards, all participants were asked to rate how much free time they felt that they had.

The results showed that participants who had been pursuing happiness rated themselves as having much less free time than those who had already accomplished happiness.

“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” researchers said.

“This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being,” they said.

Nevertheless, the findings from this study could be beneficial to assuring that the pursuit of happiness is not detrimental to well-being. By monitoring positive feelings and happy accomplishments, such as in a happiness journal, a person can actively pursue happiness whilst still being satisfied with their current position in life. This satisfaction converts to a feeling of achievement, and if someone believes they have already achieved happiness, they can then take the time to appreciate this.

The research also reinforced the idea that happiness is exceptionally subjective, and therefore how someone perceives the amount of time they have to achieve happiness will vary from person to person.

The researchers concluded: “By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons 

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