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Can Pursuing Happiness Make You Unhappy? (Studies and Tips)

Everyone wants to be happy, and different people have different approaches to achieving happiness. Some wait for it to find them, some try to actively seek it out. But can you really hurry happiness or can pursuing it make you unhappy?

They say that good things come to those who wait, and there may be some truth to that. Being too focused on trying to find happiness can actually make you less happy in some cases. Actively seeking our own happiness can make us lonely and it may make it seem like we’re running out of time, which can make us feel unhappy. But when happiness is within reach, taking a conscious extra step does no harm.

In this article, I’ll take a look at what science says about the pursuit of happiness, as well as some tips on how to make the pursuit of happiness as painless as possible.

This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!

Is pursuing happiness worth it?

Most people have heard the old adage “seek and you shall find” at least once in their lives, and it seems to be true for most things.

Happiness, however, may be different. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy or trying to live a happier life. Conscious choices usually help you live more meaningfully and happily.

But there is a difference between making good choices and actively and persistently pursuing happiness. Just like you can’t fake happiness, you can’t force it.

To quote the English philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.”

In other words, those that focus on the journey – and not on the destination – are the happiest.

What science says about the pursuit of happiness

You don’t just have to take my (and John Stuart Mill’s) word for it – science seems to say so, too.

A 2011 study reports that under certain circumstances, pursuing happiness can actually be detrimental. In the experiments, leading people to value happiness more made them feel less happy, but only in a positive emotional context. When we are experiencing positive emotions, expectations for happiness are high and it is difficult to attribute the failure to be happy to one’s circumstances. People are more likely to feel disappointed in their level of happiness, and therefore, valuing happiness may lead people to be less happy.

step outside your comfort zone for happiness

Pursuing happiness can make you unhappy in some scenarios

Sometimes, pursuing happiness may not just make you less happy, but can also be a risk factor for depression. A 2014 study found that highly valuing happiness is associated with elevated symptoms and diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The authors propose that this is due to two things: valuing happiness decreases positive emotion, and extreme and inflexible emotional values may lead to disordered emotional regulation.

Both of these are a risk factor and a symptom of depression. Basically, if you’re too fixated on wanting to be happy, you’re inadvertently decreasing your current happiness level.

One of the ways how seeking happiness can backfire is by making people lonely, as reported by another study from 2011. In western contexts, happiness is usually defined in terms of personal positive feelings and striving for personal gains can damage connections with others, which makes people lonely. Loneliness is one of the most robust negative predictors of happiness and well-being.

Another way the pursuit of happiness can make you a little less happy is by altering your perception of how much time you have. A widely reported study from 2018 found that happiness seeking reduces the time we think is available, but only when we think that our goal will take a long time to achieve. This feeling does not occur when we have already achieved our goal or when we sense that it’s within reach and will take little time to achieve.

Happiness is unique

However, happiness is often an elusive goal that is never fully realized. People may feel like they have to dedicate a lot of time to pursuing future happiness, which leaves less time for enjoying and appreciating the present. When we are pressed for time, we gravitate towards material possessions instead of experiences, and we are less willing to spend time helping others and volunteering, which can make us less happy.

Happiness is a very individual concept. My happiness may not be your happiness, and this is true for cultures as well. American happiness is not the same as Russian happiness, and the pursuit of happiness has different outcomes in different cultures, as demonstrated by a 2015 study.

The researchers studied the U.S., Germany, Russia, and East Asia to see how culture influences happiness. According to the results, motivation to pursue happiness predicted lower well-being in the U.S., and predicted higher well-being in Russia and in East Asia, while no correlation was found in Germany. This can be explained by the differences in how people pursue happiness in different countries.

In the U.S. and other individualistic cultures, the pursuit of happiness is very personal, while in East Asia, Russia and other collectivistic cultures it is a more social endeavor.

It seems that John Stuart Mill hit the nail on the head when he wrote that it’s being fixated on our own happiness, not on others’, that brings unhappiness.

How to pursue happiness without it backfiring

Science may not be very encouraging, but there are ways to make sure that your pursuit of happiness doesn’t backfire.

1. Stay in the moment and enjoy the journey

Instead of worrying about future happiness that you don’t know how to achieve, try staying in the present.

If you’re constantly worrying about what’s to come, especially over things that you may not have control over, you’re lowering your chances of being happy right now. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take any steps with your future in mind. But you live here and now, and feeling good in the moment is important for your well-being.

A good way to both reduce worrying and make sure you stay in the moment is to practice mindfulness.

dandelion letting go

2. Focus on relationships

Research shows that the pursuit of happiness can make us lonely. To avoid that, prioritize relationships to keep them flourishing. Not only will you be less lonely, but friendships can also make you happier.

We might sometimes feel like we have to be happy (or at least seem happy) to have good relationships, but it really works the other way around – good relationships make us happy. If you want more tips on how to be a good friend, we’ve got you covered.

3. Be flexible

So you have a plan and a list of goals to reach. You know what happiness is to you and you know how to get there. But then life throws a curveball at you, and suddenly, your plan doesn’t work.

If you’re too fixated on your goals and happiness, it may be hard to move on after a setback. But a more flexible approach allows you to regroup and move on much more easily. Be ready to spend more time than you planned or to set your happiness-goal on the backburner if something more pressing comes up.

Think of the following:

Happiness = reality – expectations

You have probably seen this equation before. If you want to enjoy the journey of happiness more without focusing on getting to the destination, it helps to let go of expectations.

Closing words

Chasing happiness can make you unhappy because you’re not really enjoying the journey. Being too focused on your future goal can make you lonely and less happy if you’re fixated on your personal happiness. But it doesn’t have to be that way – the pursuit of happiness can be a meaningful journey if you remember to stay in the present and value your relationships. Everyone’s happiness journey starts right here and now, with the people you love – how far along are you?

Do you want to share your own positive change that you applied in your life? Did I miss an awesome tip that you used to be happier in an instance? I’d love to hear in the comments below!


Maili Tirel

School psychologist

School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“

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