Less than two weeks into 2021, and you should throw in the towel and just consign yourself to having a miserable year.
You gave it a good shot. Things didn’t work out. Maybe 2022 will be your year.
Nah, that’s not what we’re saying, or what The Guardian’s David Robson is saying.
However, what is being discussed is how positive thinking and visualising success can actually end up being counterproductive, and an obsession with striving for happiness can result in us being less content with our lives.
This is apparent from a number of recent studies, one of which was carried out by Iris Mauss at the University of California, Berkeley:
The participants were first asked to rate how much they agreed with a series of statements such as: “I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness” and “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy”.
The people who scored highly should have been seizing each day for its last drop of joy, yet Mauss found they tended to be less satisfied with their everyday lives, and were more likely to have depressive symptoms even in times of relatively low stress.
It’s worth being cautious and not drawing too much from those results, but then a second study from Mauss pointed to a strong causal connection:
In this experiment, Mauss asked half the participants to read a paragraph expounding the benefits of feeling good, and then had them watch a feelgood film about a professional figure skater.
Far from enhancing their enjoyment of the inspirational story, the focus on their own happiness had muted their joy – compared with the second group of participants, who had been given a dry article to read about the importance of rational judgment.
Those same results have been replicated in various studies around the world.
Devoting too much energy towards trying to feel happy can also make one miss out on the simpler pleasures in life:
Surveying participants in the UK, Dr Bahram Mahmoodi Kahriz and Dr Julia Vogt at the University of Reading have found that the people who scored highest on Mauss’s questionnaire felt less excitement and anticipation for forthcoming events, and were less likely to savour the moment during the events themselves. They were also less likely to look back fondly on a fun event in the days afterwards – it just occupied less of their headspace.
“They have such a high standard for achieving happiness that they don’t appreciate the small and simple things that are really meaningful in their life – and they are more unhappy as a result,” says Mahmoodi Kahriz.
This is why I insist on deriving great joy from a simple Sunday morning lie-in. Sorry, parents of young children, remember those?
The Guardian article goes on to dig deeper into techniques that may serve you better in your pursuit of happiness, so that’s worth reading in full, but here’s how the article finishes:
Ultimately, you might adopt the old adage “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and be unsurprised by everything in between”.
Go on, set the bar low and you may just scrape over it.
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