Why Is the Pursuit of Happiness Making Us So Stressed?

The “pursuit of happiness” is a phrase Americans know well. The United States Declaration of Independence established it in 1776 as an inalienable right for all citizens. Fast forward to 1955, and happiness becomes a national pastime, epitomized by Disney’s “Happiest Place on Earth.” Now in the first quarter of the 21stcentury, happiness is a booming business.

And these days, it’s not just Americans who are mad about happiness. Just look at all the self-help books published in the US, like The Happiness Projectand The Happiness Equation, which quickly climb international bestseller lists. Then there are scores of happiness books based on other cultures, like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life. Scandinavian books are particularly popular because the annual World Happiness Report consistently ranks these countries among the happiest of 154 nations surveyed. The US was ranked 18thin the last report, so clearly they know something we don’t.

Gross National Happiness

On the one hand, the global quest for happiness can be seen as a good thing, especially at the level of national governments. Up till recently, economic strength was all that mattered—the benefits would “trickle down” to improve citizens’ lives. But then some savvy world leaders realized that Gross National Product (GNP)—the standard measure for how well a national economy is doing—can’t be used as a proxy for how well people in that country are doing. For example, it’s possible to have both growing GNP and growing income inequality, meaning that while the nation appears to get richer, poverty levels remain the same or even worsen. That’s definitely not good for the poor people, or the society as a whole.One particularly savvy world leader, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck identified this problem way back in 1972, so he instituted Gross National Happiness (GNH) to get a better picture of progress in his nation. While GNH actually measures diverse factors like cultural and environmental preservation, the word “happiness” in its name suggests that’s the ultimate goal. Thanks to this pioneering work, other countries are now including indicators of citizen happiness in their measures of social progress.

Yet on the other hand, pursuing happiness may not improve lives the way we hope. Bhutan’s own (now former) prime minister, Tshering Tobgay argued against it in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio. Citing troubles in Bhutan, he admitted that happiness can be a distraction from pressing issues such as the national debt and youth unemployment.

Americans’ Declining Happiness

In fact, it seems that the more we chase after happiness, the worse off we may become. Every year we have more blogs, more books, and more life coaches testifying how to attain happiness, yet 2017 marked a 10-year low for Americans.Analysts have offered many explanations for this decline. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report’s co-authors, points to rising income inequality and persistent poverty even while the US economy is growing (it’s that flawed progress indicator, GNP again!). Other analysts attribute the decline to weakening social support networks, failing confidence in public institutions, or pressing public health problems like obesity, depression, and the opioid crisis.

All these issues negatively impact our life satisfaction, without a doubt. Yet if we want to understand why Americans (and others) are not ringing the bell on the happiness meter, it might help to consider the goal itself. When we think about happiness, we typically associate it with a pleasant or elated feeling. That’s a good thing. The problem with this feeling, however, is that it can be rather superficial, subjective, vague, transient, and often misleading. As a goal, happiness is slippery, and thus, we’re unlikely to attain it. Perhaps that’s why the happiness self-help industry is booming.  And why those of us pursuing it are feeling so stressed.

What Do Scientists Say?

I’m a social scientist, so I look to the science for explanation. One major problem with pursuing happiness is that humans are really bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains that humans reliably overestimate the intensity and duration of future emotions, largely because we can’t imagine the future in detail. Besides that, Gilbert argues, we don’t factor in all the possible events between now and the future that will make us different people, with different reactions and aspirations. These problems with affective forecasting would explain why when the future comes, we’re never as happy as we expect to be.

Another flaw in the pursuit of happiness is what psychologists call hedonistic adaptation. Basically, humans eventually return to our baseline emotional state, no matter how elated some event makes us. The happy feeling does not last because the associated positive events that occur afterward become fewer and farther between. Say you buy a car, and at first you are excited about all the new features, the new car smell, the compliments. But after a while, you get used to the car and it’s no longer fabulous—it’s just nice. The best illustration of this phenomenon is a famous study showing that lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later, despite their initial euphoria. Who would have predicted that!

Related to hedonistic adaptation is the choice paradox: the more choice we have, the less happy we are. This seems backwards—our culture celebrates freedom of choice! And we love, no demand, the ability to return merchandise, trade it in, or get an upgrade when it no longer suits us. This choice seems positive, yet when we are constantly comparing what we have to what we could have, we end up disappointed. As we all know, the grass always seems greener on the other side.

What Would Buddha Say?

While modern social science can explain why pursuing happiness makes us stressed, these ideas are not new. The Buddha figured it out well over 2500 years ago. One of Buddhism’s central concepts is samsara, the cycle of suffering, which is caused by our ceaseless desires. My favorite illustration of samsarais the story of Mara’s Daughters. Mara is like the Devil in Buddhism, or the anti-Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was sitting under a tree, very close to attaining enlightenment. Mara came foil his efforts, but when he could not tempt the Buddha away, he enlisted his three beautiful daughters.In one interpretation, these daughters are named Delusion, Desire, and Discontent, and they represent points in the wheel of suffering. Here’s how I understand it: We suffer from the Delusion that things or status or fame will make us happy, so we have Desire—we want a nicer car or a promotion, or we hope our YouTube video will go viral.  We feel pleasure when we get the object of our Desire, but because its founded on Delusion, we eventually experience Discontent. Unfortunately, until we can break free of Delusion, we are right back on the wheel of suffering. Never being able to reach “happiness”? That’s the definition of stressful.

The Buddha ultimately conquered Mara’s Daughters, which is good news for the rest of us. If we can just realize how the pursuit of happiness itself perpetuates discontent, we will be well on our way to a better life. We don’t have to be Buddhist to do that…but we should at least reconsider our goal.

More on that topic next time…

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2 replies on “ Why Is the Pursuit of Happiness Making Us So Stressed? ”
  1. Brilliant article! Particularly the hedonistic adaptation is so prevalent in our modern society, causing endless stress in trying to be deliriously happy a lot of the time. I enjoyed your interpretation of Mara’s Daughters, too. Thank you for this excursion of wonder .

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Claudia! The word “hedonistic” can be off-putting, but we humans are so adept at adapting, that anything can become “the new normal.” I’d rather the new normal be something positive 🙂

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