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.