Want to be happy? Stop trying so hard!

April 29, 2022

All humans want to realize satisfaction and enjoyment in their lives, but is the avid pursuit of happiness actually creating a society of sad, selfish, and solitary creatures?

In his book, Happiness By Design (Avery, August 2014), Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics has made a case for two types of happiness—the first, derived from feelings of purpose (or meaning and fulfilment); the second, from  feelings of pleasure (such as joy and excitement).

However, he warns that when we consciously seek joy, we run up against two major roadblocks, reports the BBC’s Science Focus magazine. The first is that the pure pursuit of happiness can make us narcissistic and selfish. The second is that, paradoxically, focusing on happiness can end up making us miserable.

What this means, Dolan believes, is that we should not be pursuing happiness directly. Instead, he says, we should focus outside ourselves. When happiness is defined by feelings of both pleasure and purpose, it becomes easy to see why helping others engenders joy. We get a warm glow from helping other people, which comes in large part from the purpose we feel when we do so. Charitable giving and volunteering have both been shown to make people happier. Doing good is entirely consistent with feeling good.

This definition of happiness also explains why being productive at work, or learning a new skill, feels good—not only because it is fun, but because it feels fulfilling.

Thus, we should each seek to find the right balance between pleasure and purpose—both in our actions and from the people we spend time with.

For example, getting totally lost in the zone when you work and achieving a state of flow is less likely to occur if you pay attention to how it is making you feel. Concentrating on the feelings merely takes you out of that immersion in the activity. You will be happier when you are not constantly being distracted by thoughts of whether you are, in fact, happy.

So, we do need to spend some time working out what brings us pleasure and purpose and the right balance between them. But once we have conducted that audit, we need to pay attention to the activities themselves rather than to how those activities make us feel.

We might also worry about becoming so obsessed with being happy in itself that we forget to enjoy how things feel along the way. But if you pay attention to the activities that make you feel good, you will be happier without even having to think about it. And who wouldn’t want that?

Research contact: @sciencefocus