Can pursuing happiness make you unhappy?

March 12, 2018, Springer
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

People generally like to feel happy, but achieving a state of happiness takes time and effort. Researchers have now found that people who pursue happiness often feel like they do not have enough time in the day, and this paradoxically makes them feel unhappy. Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University in the US and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada have investigated this effect in a study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, which is published by Springer and is an official journal of the Psychonomic Society.

Kim and Maglio conducted four studies in which they investigated how the pursuit of happiness as well as the state of being happy influenced people's perception of time. Pursuing happiness caused the participants to think of time as scarce.

In the studies, some participants were either instructed to list things that would make them happier or asked to try to make themselves feel happy while watching a dull movie about building bridges, thus demonstrating happiness as pursuit. The other participants came to think of happiness as a goal that they had already accomplished, achieved by watching a slapstick comedy (rather than the bridge movie) or listing items showing that they are already happy. Afterwards, all participants reported how much free time they felt they had.

The researchers' main findings showed that a person's perception of time scarcity is influenced by their pursuit of (often unattainable) happiness. The feeling that time was scarce lessened for who maintained that they had attained their goal of being happy to some degree.

"Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit," explain the researchers. "This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being." According to the researchers, the findings imply that while happiness can impair positive emotions, it need not necessarily do so. Instead, if someone believes they have achieved happiness, they are left with the time to appreciate this, for instance by keeping a gratitude journal. The research further underscores that people have different concepts about happiness, which in turn may well influence how they perceive the time they have to achieve happiness.

"Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences," the researchers continue, who say that feeling pressed for time often also makes people less willing to spend time helping others or volunteering. "By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness."

The two researchers believe that given the influence that time availability has on people's decision-making and well-being, it remains essential to understand when, why, and how they perceive and use their time differently in their pursuit of and other goals.

Explore further: The search for happiness: Using MRI to find where happiness happens

More information: Aekyoung Kim et al, Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2018). DOI: 10.3758/s13423-018-1436-7

Related Stories

The search for happiness: Using MRI to find where happiness happens

November 20, 2015
Japanese researchers have mapped out using MRI where happiness emerges in the brain. The study, published in Scientific Reports, paves the way for measuring happiness objectively—and also provides insights on a neurologically ...

True happiness isn't about being happy all the time

January 10, 2018
Over the past two decades, the positive psychology movement has brightened up psychological research with its science of happiness, human potential and flourishing. It argues that psychologists should not only investigate ...

Happiness has a dark side

May 16, 2011
It seems like everyone wants to be happier and the pursuit of happiness is one of the foundations of American life. But even happiness can have a dark side, according to the authors of a new review article published in Perspectives ...

Happiness is not determined by childhood biomarkers

September 18, 2017
Happiness is not determined by childhood biological markers such as height or body fat, according to a team of European researchers involving UCL.

Recommended for you

Study with infants suggests language not necessary for reasoning ability

March 16, 2018
A team of researchers from Spain, Hungary and Poland has found via a study with infants that language may not be a necessity for the ability to reason. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes ...

Hep C compounds alcoholism's effect on brain volume

March 16, 2018
(HealthDay)—Alcohol dependence has deleterious effects on frontal cortical volumes that are compounded by hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and drug dependence, according to a study published online March 14 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Study casts doubt on ketamine nasal sprays for depression

March 16, 2018
Researchers from the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Sydney have questioned the efficacy and safety of intranasal ketamine for depression, with their pilot trial stopped early due to poor side effects in patients.

Older adults' difficulties with focusing can be used to help put a face to a name

March 16, 2018
Everyone has experienced the awkward situation of meeting someone and then forgetting their name shortly after. Among older adults, this happens more often than not.

A little anger in negotiation pays

March 16, 2018
During negotiations, high-intensity anger elicits smaller concessions than moderate-intensity anger, according to a new study by management and business experts at Rice University and Northwestern University.

Research reveals brain mechanism involved in language learning

March 15, 2018
Learning a new language may be more of a science than an art, a University of Sussex study finds.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.