Happiness — while it’s something we all want, new research shows that it shouldn’t be something we pursue.

Piece of cake.

For once, these lame-o feely-goody snaps actually have a point.
Image credits Antonio Quagliata.

The actual pursuit of happiness might be what’s keeping you from it, a new paper reports. People who make a conscious effort to attain happiness often feel like they don’t have enough free time during the day, which, paradoxically, ends up making them feel unhappy. The findings are based on four studies which probed into how the pursuit of happiness and the state of happiness influence people’s perception of time.

Time to be happy

Some of the participants in these studies were asked to list things that would make them happier; the others, to try and make themselves feel happy while watching a (rather dull) video about bridge-building. Later, all participants reported on how much free time they felt they had throughout the day.

The two were meant to illustrate the differences between thinking of happiness as something already achieved, or as a goal to be pursued. For example, the first group got to watch something they liked, not a boring old movie about bridges; they also got to look at a list of items showing them that they already have a lot to be happy about. Group two were told they have to work to feel happy, which naturally implies that they’re not right now.

The results were quite interesting. The team reports that an individual’s pursuit of happiness — which the team cheerily refers to as  “unattainable” — can influence their perceived time scarcity; in other words, those running towards happiness end up feeling like they’re only running out of time. This feeling was lessened, however, for participants who considered that they have achieved happiness to some degree.

“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” the researchers explain. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”

They add that this suggests happiness can become a drain on our emotional state, but that it doesn’t have to. If you stop and appreciate the happiness you have achieved — and I think all of us find happiness, large or small, in something — you’ll use your time to appreciate it, rather than endlessly run towards new ‘sources’. The paper also underscores that people have different concepts about what happiness is, and that this will further influence how they perceive time scarcity.

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Own less, appreciate more

The researchers also say there’s a more insidious aspect regarding this perceived time scarcity. The worse it gets, the more people start to move away from the things that actually give them happiness, and towards possessions that give the illusion of happiness — forming a vicious cycle.

“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,” they explain.

Feeling pressed for time, they add, makes us less likely to help others or to volunteer — and it’s immaterial things like generosity, selflessness, experiences, or simply being part of a community, that make us sustainably happy.

“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.”

Still, while the results show that happiness is fleeting when pursued and that it dramatically alters our perception of time, the research doesn’t offer much in the way of why this happens. Considering that our perception of time availability is such a big factor in our day-to-day decisions and quality of life, the team thinks it essential for further research to uncover when, why, and how people budget their time in pursuit of happiness and other goals.

To me, it shows the importance of tempering the need for more, the drive to improve, our natural desire for higher status and a better life, with an appreciation of what we have achieved or have been given, of those we love, of the beauty in things as mundane as a wisp of wind. Happiness, then, won’t lie beyond the next hill — it will be right here with us, making the climb easier.

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The paper “Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness” has been published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

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