Happiness Can Be an Elusive Goal
It’s understandable why we would want to be happier, yet happiness can be an elusive goal. In some situations, valuing happiness might be self-defeating or create distress, particularly when standards have been set that are difficult to achieve. When we cannot attain the goals we set for ourselves in terms of happiness, the more likely we are to experience disappointment when we’re not happy.[i] Thus, in seeking happiness you may feel worse off the more you want it, and overvaluing happiness can possibly lead you to be less happy even if happiness is within your reach.
Whether or not you think you should be happier may depend upon your subjective assessment of what happiness is for you. What defines happiness differs among people. How you measure your own happiness in relation to the obstacles you presently face, for example, may be influenced by your culture and socioeconomic status. Yet being privileged may interfere with your happiness rather than protect it. If you grew up most often having your needs met because your family had money, status, or power it’s likely that your perception of your interpersonal influence and your ability to control your environment is much greater than a peer whose family had low socioeconomic status and therefore learned to adapt to circumstances.[ii] When preferences are unavailable and the potential for disappointment is high, people of high socioeconomic status who have learned to value control and a sense of agency tend to be more upset than people from a culture of low socioeconomic status who value flexibility, integrity, and resilience.[iii] Therefore, depending upon your perspective, not getting what you want may result in frustration and disappointment, or it can be an opportunity to employ your skills at adaptation.
Primarily in Western culture, emotions that are uplifting, such as joy, elation, amusement, or gladness, are considered to be positive and are associated with individual success, good health, and high self-esteem. Although Westerners may assume that all people should strive to experience more positive emotion in their lives, this may not be the case for other cultures.[iv] In many Asian cultural contexts, for instance, happiness may be associated with negative social consequences, such as jealousy in others. The goal may be moderation of positive emotion, instead of maximization, in cultures informed by the Buddhist belief that pure pleasantness is impossible to attain or can lead to suffering. Researchers have found that culture makes a difference in the role that positive emotions play in mental health, and that positive emotions may not be as positive for Asians as for European Americans.[v] Therefore, emotion moderation through balancing positive and negative emotions may be a cultural goal in Asian contexts, but in Western contexts maximizing positive emotions may be a cultural goal.
Your ability to embrace happiness can be influenced by your perception of your own well-being in relation to others. If you believe that fate has been more favorable to you, or was at the expense of others, you may suffer from survivor guilt that may keep you from taking advantage of opportunities, lead you to punish yourself with shameful feelings, create an inability to enjoy a relationship, or cause an anxious expectation of something bad happening.[vi] Further, a child who grows up with unhappy family circumstances may perpetuate that unhappiness as an adult out of loyalty to his family, possibly developing symptoms following success or an event that activates an experience of happiness.[vii]
Although happiness is not an emotion, the mood-elevating qualities of many distinct emotions that involve a surge of pleasure and increased motivation are considered as a state of happiness. Emotions that create happiness all differ in terms of how they are experienced, however, they have a similar facial expression: a smile.[viii] Activating any emotion that has a mood-elevating quality will lead you to be happy, at least momentarily. But keep in mind that efforts to experience only happy emotions may be misconceived since, like all emotions, happy ones serve an evolutionary purpose and exist to help you. If you were happy all of the time, or focused only on being happy, you might ignore the information that is provided by other emotions, such as anger, envy, shame, fear, or anxiety. Nevertheless, to differentiate some of the happy emotions, I’ll briefly describe those of elation, gladness, relief, joy, bliss, and amusement.
An event that fulfills a personal fantasy about the possibility of something amazing happening to you will trigger elation — the experience of unreality, euphoria, and confidence that is extraordinarily energizing and makes you want to broadcast the good news.[ix] In contrast to elation, the emotion of gladness is created by a less intense hope that is fulfilled, and it is experienced as relaxation and relief.[x] But relief itself is considered to be a happy or positive emotion. Relief is felt when something that had strongly stirred up your emotions subsides (Ekman, 2003). You may be familiar with the common expression of relief, a sigh, which seems to suggest that whatever has impacted you is let out in one deep breath. The emotion of joy involves situations where there is a meaningful encounter — your heart feels “open” and you have a greater caring about others that seems to affirm life’s meaning.[xi] Joy might be felt in a situation with others that you perceive to be a unique and pleasurable shared experience, and it is often accompanied by feelings of vigor, strength, and a readiness to engage in interpersonal interactions.[xii] You are likely to experience joy when you see a loved relative you haven’t seen in a long time. However, it is possible that religious or spiritual connections — ones that do not involve other living people — can trigger joy. A surge of extreme pleasure is felt when the emotion of bliss is activated. This state of rapture where you transcend your sense of self is considered to be an intense experience. Bliss is often felt as love, sensory or sexual pleasure, anticipation of high excitement, or a meditative state.[xiii] When a blissful state is experienced with someone you love, the craving and need to recreate it can be intense. Finally, amusement is the emotion felt in response to something funny or in reaction to other matters that have a humorous quality.[xiv]
You may want to use these emotions to be happier but think that anything you do won’t make a difference, especially given the research having to do with the existence of a particular “set point” for happiness that emphasizes its stability over time despite external influences, and underscores genetic contributions. Presently, there is controversy as to whether or not a particular set point for happiness does exist.[xv] Nevertheless, intentional activities are said to contribute to, or influence one’s subjective level of happiness.[xvi]
Given the possibility that one’s level of happiness is open to influence, numerous studies attempt to find the activities that will create it. Recent research regarding what makes people happier has pointed to concrete activities that may trigger the emotions associated with happiness. Some of the suggestions, which are not my own, include wearing well cut, figure enhancing clothes that are made from bright beautiful fabrics,[xvii] watching movies having to do with tragic stories involving themes of eternal love which can evoke happiness by helping you appreciate your close relationships,[xviii] or practicing optimistic thinking by visualizing your best possible future self and expressing gratitude through writing.[xix] In any case, researchers found that positive experiences and continued effort certainly do make a difference in boosting well-being when participants are informed about the happiness intervention, endorse it, and are committed to it; and thus, happiness requires effort.[xx]
We usually think of emotions that create a sense of happiness as being exempt from disorder, except in the case of manic states. Yet any emotion can be disordered in a variety of ways. Many people, for example, have a compulsive or pathological need to experience the visceral rush created by the happy emotions of elation, joy, or bliss. Typical situations include people who seek “happiness” in a torrid affair (and by comparison are unhappy with their partner); those who believe their life is much “happier” when they are intoxicated, high on drugs, or engaged in risky activities; or people who have an incessant need for external stimulation. Such situations are unfortunate reminders that the pursuit of happiness can sometimes be misguided, and perhaps even make you ill.
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[i] Mauss, I., Tamir, M., Anderson, C., & Savino, N. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815.
[ii] Cohen, A. (2009). Many forms of culture. American Psychologist, 64(3), 194–204; Snibbe, A. & Markus, H. (2005). You can’t always get what you want: Educational attainment, agency, and choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(4), 703–720.
[iii] Cohen, A. (2009), cited above; Snibbe, A. & Markus, H. (2005), cited above.
[iv] Leu, J.; Wang, J.; & Koo, K. (2011). Are positive emotions just as “positive” across cultures? Emotion, 11(4), 994–999.
[v] Leu, J.; Wang, J.; & Koo, K. (2011), cited above.
[vi] Weiss, J. (1993). How Psychotherapy Works: Process and Technique. New York: Guilford.
[vii] Weiss, J. (1993), cited above.
[viii] Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Holt.
[ix] DeRivera, J., Possell, L., Verette, J., & Weiner, B. (1989). Distinguishing elation, gladness, and joy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1015–1023.
[x] DeRivera, J., Possell, L., Verette, J., & Weiner, B. (1989), cited above.
[xi] DeRivera, J., Possell, L., Verette, J., & Weiner, B. (1989), cited above.
[xii] DeRivera, J., Possell, L., Verette, J., & Weiner, B. (1989), cited above; Frija, N. (1986). The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[xiii] Ekman, P. (2003), cited above.
[xiv] Ekman, P. (2003), cited above.
[xv] Diener, E. & Fujita, F. (2005). Life satisfaction set point: Stability and change. Journal of Psychology and Social Psychology, 88(1), 158–164.
[xvi] Sheldon, K.M; Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55–86.
[xvii] Fletcher, B. & Pine, K. (2012). FLEX: Do Something Different. How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality. University of Hertfordshire Press.
[xviii] Knobloch-Westerwick, S.; Gong, Y., Hagner, H.; Kerbeykian, L. (2012). Tragedy viewers count their blessings: Feeling low on fiction leads to feeling high on life. Communication Research, 39 (4).
[xix] Lyubomirsky, S.; Dickerhoof, R.; Boehm, J.; & Sheldon, K. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11(2), 391–402.
[xx] Lyubomirsky, S.; Dickerhoof, R.; Boehm, J.; & Sheldon, K. (2011), cited above.