This question is the subject of recent research led by the psychologist Iris Mauss, which suggest that the pursuit of happiness could have some unintended negative consequences.
Most of us on this planet are searching for happiness—whatever our definition of happiness happens to be—so introducing the idea that the act of pursuing happiness could actually lead us in the opposite direction, must surely give pause.
The problem with pursuing happiness is that you are in pursuit, meaning that you haven’t achieved what it is you are after. It’s the old “carrot on a string;” always enticingly out front and just out of reach.
The pursuit of happiness is the same problem facing the perfectionist (negative perfectionist); never satisfied and always trying to achieve something that their drive and desire will not let them reach.
As a counter, to the “pursuit of happiness,” is an approach that comes from the Vedic wisdom tradition; letting go of the pursuit.
This approach teaches us to let go and detach ourselves from our need to achieve. This involves our willingness to surrender to uncertainty and allow events to unfold naturally while letting go of our attachment to a particular preconceived outcome.
By letting go of our attachments we free ourselves to accept that things will evolve as they are meant to leaving us with a sense of security and serenity.
Practicing (and it is a practice) detachment doesn’t mean refraining from being involved, instead it’s about becoming more accepting of what is; what’s beyond our control.
In this situation your happiness isn’t dependent on outcome of the pursuit; rather it will arise as a state of contentment and wellbeing from the power of your essence, your true self.
Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and the author of “Give and Take,” explores the idea of happiness leading to unhappiness, in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post.
He tells the story of the man named “Tom” to illustrate how the quest for happiness actually led him to experience the opposite and how that led him to give up the chase.
I like happy endings, and Adam’s story about Tom, as every good story’s goes (which is more than the eventually happy ending that I liked) leaves us with important lessons which help us assess what it is in our lives that’s keeping us from finding happiness.
Here’s Adam to share some of these lessons from “Tom’s” cautionary tale:
Tom made four mistakes that are all too common on the road to happiness. The first blunder was in trying to figure out if he was happy. When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and contentment. To find out if we’re making progress, we need to compare our past happiness to our current happiness. This creates a problem: the moment we make that comparison, we shift from an experiencing mode to an evaluating mode. Consider several decades of research by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity. Think of being engrossed in a Harry Potter book, playing a sport you love, or catching up with a good friend you haven’t seen in years. You’re in the zone: you’re so immersed in the task that you lose track of time and the outside world.
Csikszentmihalyi finds that when people are in a flow state, they don’t report being happy, as they’re too busy concentrating on the activity or conversation. But afterward, looking back, they describe flow as the optimal emotional experience.
The second error was in overestimating the impact of life circumstances on happiness. As psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of positive life events. We think a great roommate or a major promotion will make us happier, overlooking the fact that we’ll adapt to the new circumstances. For example, in a classic study, winning the lottery didn’t appear to yield lasting gains in happiness. Each time Tom moved to a new job and country, he was initially excited to be running on a new treadmill, but within a matter of months, the reality of the daily grind set in: he was still running on a treadmill.
The third misstep was in pursuing happiness alone. Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it’s only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and causes depression….
…The final mistake was in looking for intense happiness. When we want to be happy, we look for strong positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, and excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this isn’t the best path to happiness. Research led by the psychologist Ed Diener reveals that happiness is driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions. Continue reading here…
Adam, points to economist John Kay’s argument that some goals are reached as a side-effect of pursuing something altogether different. In Obliquity, Kay’s book, he describes how happiness is reached only when people are absorbed is meaningful activities – part of Csikszentmihalyi’s“flow” state.
I had a wonderful teacher who explained it this way, “once you’re aware and think about how happy you are; you no longer are.” Happiness is a natural state of being, an experience not a “thing” that you can catch and hold on to, or a goal you can achieve.
Can seeking happiness create unhappiness? It can as long as you are seeking it, but when you let go of the pursuit and allow the experience you end up in its flow.