Obsessing Over Happiness: A Self-Defeating Exercise

March 29, 2021

Louis Tay

Many people seek happiness in their lives. Surveys show that college students –all around the world –value happiness more than money

However, in pursuing happiness, we should be careful not to apply the same goal-setting techniques we typically do for work tasks. This is because setting a goal to become happier can inadvertently lead to less happiness. An obsessive pursuit of happiness can be self-defeating.

In an experimental study, participants were assigned to either “listen to music to either make themselves as happy as possible” or to “listen to a piece of music.” It was found that listening to music with the goal of being happier reduced their self-reported mood. Moreover, in another experimental condition where participants had been told to monitor their happiness, they showed substantial decrements in their self-reported mood compared to those who were not monitoring their happiness.

Why is this the case?

Obsessing over happiness and whether one is happy detracts from the enjoyable experiences themselves. You are constantly thinking about whether something is making you happy rather than being immersed in the experience itself.

Further, it can create an unrealistic expectation of requiring happiness from specific experiences that are not guaranteed. Imagine expecting your friends to bring you happiness. Or requiring your activities to fulfill your desires for happiness. Any instance that is perceived to fall short leads to more significant disappointment.

Instead of obsessing over happiness, let’s simply experience it.

Be well,

Dr. Louis Tay

Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science.  Be sure to check back each week for another wellness tip of the week!

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