It sounds a cruel irony, but if you put too much pressure on yourself to be happy it can have totally the opposite effect, according to psychologists. Focusing on your own fulfilment rather than your connections with others can leave you feeling lonely, they say.
Researchers from the University of Denver and the University of California, Berkeley, asked people to fill out an online questionnaire to gauge how far they valued happiness. They then filled out journals at the end of the day, reporting on stressful events during the day and how stressed and lonely they felt about them. The results showed that the higher someone values happiness, the lonelier they feel during a stressful event – regardless of their age, gender or background.
A second part of the experiment tested whether prioritising happiness is the cause of loneliness, asking people to watch a film clip after reading an article about the importance of happiness. Again, those who had higher expectations of happiness ended up feeling disappointed. The research authors say: “A desire for happiness can lead to reduced happiness and wellbeing. It may be that to reap the benefits of happiness people should want it less.”
This study backs up recent research from Germany suggesting that pessimists have a longer, happier life than optimists.
But rather than pessimism or optimism, perhaps it’s realism – and being grateful for what we have rather than continually wanting something more – that leads to real happiness? I’m reminded of the quote from Epictetu: “A wise man is he who does not grieve for the thing which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”