Researchers have found that the pursuit of happiness tends to backfire when too much emphasis is placed on it. People who strive to feel happy often feel like there are not enough hours in the day, and ironically end up feeling discouraged and unhappy.
Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough conducted a series of investigations to analyze how our perception of time is influence by both the pursuit of happiness and the state of being happy.
One group of study participants was given a set of tasks that presented happiness as a goal that must be pursued. These individuals were either instructed to compile a list of things that would make them feel happier or were asked to try and force themselves to feel happy while watching a boring film about building bridges.
Another group of participants was presented with tasks which made it seem that they had already accomplished happiness. These individuals were instructed to either write down all of the things that made them happy or to watch a slapstick comedy.
After completing the tasks, participants in both groups reported on how much free time they felt like they had.
The study revealed that the active pursuit of happiness caused the first group of people to think of their time as being scarce. The second group of individuals, who were in the mindset that they had already achieved happiness, reported having more free time.
“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” explained the study authors. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”
The researchers said that, while the findings indicate that a desire for happiness can impair positive emotions, this does not necessarily have to be the case. If someone believes they have already achieved happiness to some degree, they are left with the time to appreciate this happiness.
“By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness,” wrote the researchers.
“Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences.”
According to the study authors, the way that people perceive their time availability can significantly influence the decisions they make and their overall sense of well-being. For this reason, the experts believe that it is important to understand when, why, and how individuals use their time in pursuit of happiness and other goals.