Happiness is a tricky thing to pin down, but billions of people try to capture it every day.
Perhaps they search in spirituality, or chase after money or social standing. Maybe they buy bestselling books about how decluttering will lead to joy. Some countries have taken it a step further, creating national metrics that track the happiness of their citizens.
But is all of this focus on finding a pathway to happiness making us all ... unhappy?
According to new research published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the more someone tries to pursue happiness for its own sake, the more they feel that time is slipping away from them - which makes then even more unhappy.
For the study, which was performed by researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Toronto Scarborough, the scientists asked participant to list things them what make them happier or were asked to try to make themselves feel happy as they watched a “dull” movie about building bridges.
Other participants were asked either to watch a silly, slapstick comedy or to list items they already owned that showed they were happy.
After the study, the participants who had been asked to think of happiness as a goal thought they had less free time in the day than the other participants.
“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” the researchers said in a news release. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”
Indeed, some research on a human trait called hedonic adaptation does back up the study’s conclusions.
The theory of hedonic adaptation is that humans tend to settle into a baseline level of happiness over time regardless of what happens in their lives. When good things happen, happiness levels spike ... then fall. When bad things happen, they dip ... then rise. Rarely, however, do they stay high or get increasingly higher.
That’s why hedonic adaptation is sometimes referred to as the “hedonic treadmill.” People keep running on the “treadmill,” chasing happiness, but never reaching any definitive goal.
The researchers found that when people felt they had achieved (or at least partially achieved) happiness, they also felt like they had more time to enjoy it. They said the findings should make people worry less about pursing happiness as a never ending goal, and instead focus on the happiness they have already achieved. That, the researchers say, could be what actually makes people happier.