Archive for April, 2008

The dangers of a happiness obsession

Western society places enormous emphasis on the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans believe it a constitutional right (although, actually, happiness is only mentioned in the Declaration of Independence). The Dalai Lama opens The Art of Happiness by saying that “the very motion of our life is towards happiness”, echoing the words of Aristotle over 2000 years before him. Clearly this pursuit forms a major part of our lives, but is it possible to place too much emphasis on happiness? Is there a danger of an obsession?

This question is addressed in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, and some potential drawbacks are given. One drawback is that we may be so busy evaluating our happiness level that we do not simply enjoy the moment. If we recall some of our happiest moments in life, what were we thinking during them? Most likely, we were not thinking about happiness…we were simply happy. Maybe a split-second later we thought about happiness, but not during that actual moment. Generally speaking, we find activities more enjoyable when we are free from self-evaluation and instead are engaging fully in the activity. An obsession with achieving happiness can interfere with this process.

Another danger is that focusing on this goal of total happiness can make us less satisfied with our current situation. We can be left thinking about how life could be even better. In other words, an obsession with happiness can make us over-sensitive to every moment when we are not happy, which undermines our very goal. Perhaps it is better to simply stop thinking about it?

This is not all to say that we should not pursue happiness. However, we must be careful how we go about it. If we approach this pursuit from the premise that there is something “wrong” with our current situation then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, as mentioned here, gratitude is an important component of a happy life. Furthermore, the tendency to over-think things is an ever-present danger. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking about happiness, and actually just be happy.

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Happiness: Spending our time wisely

What are our goals in life? How do we allocate our time? It may seem obvious, but the activities that make up our day have a substantial impact on our level of happiness. Yet despite this, many people waste their days on activities that they do not enjoy, and that are often unnecessary.

Research by Shkade et al (published in Science) surveyed the daily activities of 909 employed women. Many were surprised at the amount of time spent on activities that they didn’t like. Now clearly we must often engage in unpleasant activities whether we like it or not. For example, dentist appointments are a necessary evil (unless you are prepared to accept far more unpleasantness in the long run). However, there many activities that we do have a choice in. Do we work longer hours and get higher pay? Do we spend time with friends or time alone? Do we watch TV or go for a run? These are the activities that define our days, and they have a major impact on our well-being.

The classic example of a misguided goal is the pursuit of wealth. Studies consistently show that wealth has only a small impact on happiness, and yet people pursue it with a fervour. On the other hand, engaging in volunteer work, spending time with family and friends, or taking the time to exercise, can often be highly correlated with happiness. Perhaps this would be a better use of our time?

Different activities will be suited to different people – it is up to us to find what suits us best. However, a restructuring of our day and shifting of priorities can bring much more enjoyment into our lives. We should resolve to reflect on what activities do make us happy, and we should then make an effort to increase them. As part of this, we may need to question our long-term goals – such as the pursuit of wealth – and ask how well these goals serve us. This may seem like basic advice that should be given to a child, but it is advice that almost everyone ignores. We often wish for more time or energy – perhaps we can make better use of what we have.

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