Our obsession with happiness

Happiness, happiness, happiness. If we say it enough times, maybe we’ll feel it. The British press have certainly been repeating it over the last few weeks. In January, we had the BBC News team greeting us each morning with happiness tips from the Action for Happiness movement; the Guardian running a series called How To Be Happy; the ICA and the School of Life holding panels on happiness; the Moral Maze discussing how to measure happiness. And if you tried to escape the happiness hurricane by flying to the US, it would have been in vain - Oprah devoted an entire week of shows to, yes, how to be happy.

And think of all the happiness books that have come out over the past decade. We've had (deep breath): The Happiness Project, The Happiness Hypothesis, The Happiness Formula, The Happiness Trap, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Manifesto, Stumbling Upon Happiness, The How of Happiness, The Art of Happiness, Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, Authentic Happiness, Happier, and the World Book of Happiness. I hear there is a new film coming out called Happy, and another called The Economics of Happiness. There's even a guy who's trying to be happy every single day of the year - for a book of course. Some people will do anything to get published. He wants to be happy all the time. For a year.
But is this fixation on happiness actually making us less happy? This is the interesting hypothesis tested out in a new study, forthcoming in the psychology journal Emotion, by Iris Mauss, Craig Anderson and Nicole Savino. I saw Mauss, director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at the University of Denver, present her findings at a conference in the US last week.

The study assessed how much importance people put on happiness, and how well they responded to life stresses. It found that people who put a high value on happiness were significantly less happy in situations of low stress than people who put a low value on happiness (the two groups responded about the same in situations of high stress). Mauss thinks this is perhaps because their emphasis on the importance of being happy becomes self-defeating: “The more happy you want to be, the happier you think you should be, which could lead to disappointment and discontent.”

In another study, Mauss and her colleagues primed participants by getting them to read an article about all the benefits of feeling happy. They then showed the participants a short happy film, and a short sad film. The participants who had the read the happiness article felt significantly less happy when watching the short happy film.

Mauss says: “Feeling happy clearly has many social and health benefits. But, paradoxically, explicitly targeting happiness seems to be self-defeating. If we want to teach people to be happier, then we should do it without getting them to deliberately strive to be happier.”

I put this to Lord Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, at a recent conference on measuring well-being, held by the Franco-British Council in London (you can see my short video of the conference below). He replied: “We should focus on the happiness of other people rather than our own. No one is saying we should be navel gazing, or asking ourselves constantly if we’re happy. If you want to be happy, don’t think about it all the time.” Well, then stop going on about it all the time!

Nature gave us a range of emotions for a reason. I don't want to live in a monochrome plastic world. I don't want to be happy all the time. The Good Life can't be defined by a single emotion. Life is richer than that, and more complicated. And I like it being more complicated. Imagine a TV show where everyone was happy all the time. How boring would that be.