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Don’t Try Too Hard To Be Happy


Most people who have read my blogs know that I am an advocate for improving the engagement experience. I am also an advocate for finding ways to improve the work-life interface of employees. Much of my current work centers on this issue. And there are many others out there who focus on similar things.

Occasionally, in the context of both engagement and work-life balance, I hear people throw out the term ‘happiness.’ Sometimes, happiness is used as a synonym for work engagement or job satisfaction, and other times I hear it used as an outcome of achieving ‘work/life balance.’ I don’t consider either engagement or work/life balance to be the key to happiness, and I certainly don’t consider them to be synonymous with happiness.

But, here’s an even bigger issue. Happiness, as an end-goal pursuit, may actually be a maladaptive goal. A recent article entitled “A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good” actually suggests that the pursuit of happiness as a goal may cause people to end up more unhappy than people who do not pursue happiness as a goal.

Huh? Would you mind explaining that one?

I will do my best. According to empirical research, people tend to experience positive emotions when they achieve their goals and negative emotions when they fail to achieve them. Happiness, as a state, occurs when we experience positive emotions in the absence of negative emotions.

When we achieve a tangible goal (e.g., receive a promotion), we experience a state of happiness. However, if happiness itself is the desired end-goal, then individuals will live in a constant state of disappointment. That is because it is impossible to always experience positive emotions and never experience negative emotions. As such, if happiness is the end-goal you are pursuing, you are never going to achieve it.

To make matters worse, check out some of these results that were highlighted in the article (remember, these are all based on empirical research):

  • When people are primed to value happiness, they tend to experience less happiness in positive situations (like watching a happy movie).
  • When people place a higher value on happiness, they tend to report feeling lonelier.
  • People who actively try to avoid negative feelings end up demonstrating more symptoms of depression than those who don’t.
  • People who experience happiness too frequently tend to demonstrate less creativity and adaptability and greater risk taking and mortality.

When I teach or consult around the issue of goal setting, I tell people that their goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and timebound). Happiness, as a goal, is just not SMART. It is a state of being that will ebb and flow, which is why the pursuit of happiness will increase your chances of moving from one disappointment to another.

In that way, I would say happiness, engagement, and work-life balance all have a lot in common. They are elusive targets that cannot be achieved permanently – because they will ebb and flow based on the dynamics of life. Yet, if those are the goals you are pursuing, you may end up sorely disappointed.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niemster / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on July 13, 2011 8:30 AM.

Work-Life Fit for Dads was the previous entry in this blog.

Why Companies Want Employees to Take Their Vacations is the next entry in this blog.

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