New research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology has examined the paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. The findings suggest that people who place a high value on feeling happy tend to also feel pressured to avoid negative emotional experiences, which in turn is associated with reduced psychological well-being.
“Happiness — one of the most sought-after values in the Western world today — is shown in research to be beneficial for one’s interpersonal relationships, career prospects and overall wellbeing. Yet curiously a sect of recent research has challenged the efficacy of this Western cultural ideal, revealing that placing a high value on one’s happiness can, paradoxically, lead to less happiness,” explained lead researcher Ashley Humphrey, a lecturer in psychology at Federation University Australia
“This phenomenon is termed in the literature ‘valuing happiness’ and is understood to be counter-intuitive to happiness due to the unrealistic resultant pressure people can place on themselves to feel happy at all times.”
“In response to this understanding, some research has suggested that when people prioritize behaviors that maximize the likelihood of future happiness, however, rather than attempting to engage emotional feelings of happiness ‘in the moment,’ people experience an increase in the inducement of positive emotions, higher levels of life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptomology,” Humphrey said.
“We were curious to find out whether one of the reasons this might be the case is the different way people may orient towards their negative emotional states in this approach, as opposed to how they do so when they value happiness.”
For their study, the researchers surveyed 510 U.S. participants via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. Humphrey and his colleagues found that people who tended to place a high value on happiness also tended to devalue negative emotions, which in turn was associated with greater depressive symptomology, lower life satisfaction, and lower self-esteem.
In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is” were more likely to agree with statements such as “I tend to place a lot of pressure on myself not to feel depressed or anxious,” which partially explained their reduced psychological well-being.
Prioritizing positivity (structuring one’s day in order to maximize happiness), on the other hand, was associated with improved psychological well-being.
“Across two studies, our findings show that pursuing happiness via the means of seeking out positive emotions at a later date was not associated with the same avoidance of one’s negative emotional experiences as can be the case when people try to experience moment to moment happiness,” Humphrey told PsyPost.
“These findings suggest the negative wellbeing effects of placing a high value on happiness may be partially explained by a related tendency to devalue negative emotions, providing evidence that how we perceive and handle our negative emotions plays an important role in the likelihood of experiencing happiness.”
The findings are based on cross-sectional data, which prevents the researchers from drawing conclusions about causal relationships. “It is of course possible that people who more often feel depressed or anxious – or who have longer bouts of depression or anxiety – are more bothered by these experiences, and consequently more strongly devalue their negative emotional states,” the researchers said.
But a daily-diary study published in 2017 provided longitudinal evidence that the pressure to avoid negative emotions predicted subsequent depressive symptoms. Moreover, an experimental study published in 2018 indicated that highly valuing happiness caused heightened feelings of rumination after experiencing failure.
“By showing that individuals who highly value their happiness may deliberately try and suppress or avoid their negative emotions, the current paper adds to our understanding of how to best pursue happiness,” Humphrey said. “With clinical practices tending to focus on measures aimed at improving client’s happiness, our findings suggest that clinicians may benefit from encouraging patients towards a more behavioral approach to happiness, aimed at optimizing the chance of achieving happiness at a later date.”
The study, “When the pursuit of happiness backfires: The role of negative emotion valuation“, was authored by Ashley Humphrey, Rebecca Szoka, and Brock Bastian.