The Pursuit of Happiness - Trying to Have More Sometimes Leads to Having Less



Sometimes, life can be pretty simple: If you really value something, you just have to give your best and work hard in order to achieve it. Whether it be academic excellence or professional success, everything comes down to the effort you devote to the very thing you value. This approach, however, has its flipside: The more you value something, the more you are disappointed, when you don’t succeed. Have you ever been investing a lot of time and energy in a project, only to find out that your boss does not prioritize it as much as you would want to? In her book „The Progress Principle“, author and Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile describes how a project team at US-based furniture manufacturer Karpenter experienced an even worse scenario.

Every quarter, there is a product review meeting taking place at Karpenter, where project teams present their ideas to a top executive team. One day, however, everything was different. Just recently Karpenter had brought in a new top executive team that not only reorganized the whole company, but that was also in charge of evaluating the products presented at the product review meeting. At this very meeting, one of the project teams presented a product that they had spent the previous six months working on: a radical new design for floor mops. And although the team presented their idea enthusiastically, they experienced what must be one of the most severe setbacks. Their project got cancelled by the executive team and they were assigned to work on a completely different product. After six months of heavy investment, they had to change the direction – they were not able to achieve something they have begun to value a lot.

An intrinsic property of a setback this severe is a negative emotion such as disappointment or anger. But what happens if you don’t value academic excellence or professional success, but rather happiness itself? In this case, a setback would not only make you feel disappointed. It would make you feel the opposite of what you are aiming for. It essentially means that every single setback is accompanied by another setback. If you are looking forward to meeting a friend at the end of the week and this friend cancels your arrangment, you might naturally feel disappointed because of that. But if being happy is very important to you, this feeling of disappointment itself represents a setback in the pursuit of the very thing you value so much.

And there are other scenarios, where putting too much emphasis on happiness might have detrimental consequences. Let’s imagine a scenario, where something good happens to you and it turns out to make you less happy than expected. For instance, you finally finished the examination period and you did a good job on the exams... Now, you should be happy! However, along with finishing the last exam, you notice a feeling of emptiness, when in fact you „should“ be happy. You start to ruminate and eventually, you notice that the good feeling of finishing the exams is completely gone. The same applies to a birthday party, where you have all your friends around, but somehow, don’t feel as happy as you „should“.

In 2011, US psychologists undertook studies, where they were looking at the downside of valuing happiness. In one study, they investigated how valuing happiness affects people’s mood depending on the degree of stress they experienced over the last 18 months. The condition of stress was included in the study in order to take external circumstances into account. The researchers hypothesized that people who value happiness will be less happy in a positive context (e.g. low levels of stress) than people who don’t value happiness as much. They expected the latter individuals to just „go with the flow“ and enjoy the moment, while the happiness-valuing participants might be on the hunt for increasing their happiness even more. And indeed, they found their hypothesis to be true: In positive contexts, people who pursue happiness are on average less happy than people who don’t value happiness as much.

In order to investigate whether valuing happiness really caused this apparent paradox, the researchers set up an experiment. They showed people a short video clip aiming  to induce positive emotions. The clip showed a female skater winning a gold medal accompanied by an enthusiastic audience cheering her – an uplifting moment. Before watching the clip, however, some study participants were assigned to read a newspaper article that described the importance of happiness: „[...] the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular.“ It turned out that these participants indeed tried to be happier by watching the clip, but reported to be less happy than people who just watched the clip without reading the newspaper.

Thus, although happiness is an end in itself, it might decrease your overall happiness if you strive too much for it. Especially when everything is going well, it might be better to focus on the things you already have, rather than the things you could still improve. One of the best researched approaches towards sustainable happiness is gratitude – savoring what you have. And that is going to be the topic of next week’s article.



Iris B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson and Nicole S. Savino (2011): “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness.” Emotion 11: 807-815.

Teresa Amabile (2011): “The Progress Principle”