How Happy Are You? Why Asking This Can Make You Feel Less Happy


Embarking on a journey to understand happiness can be likened to opening a Pandora’s Box of emotions. It’s a complex and multifaceted entity, one that Dr. Iris Mauss, a distinguished psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been meticulously studying.

Dr. Mauss’s research has delved deep into the ‘Happiness Paradox,’ a phenomenon highlighting the ironic twist that pursuing happiness can sometimes lead to a decline in our sense of well-being. This paradox arises when individuals try to be happy, only to find their well-being diminishing in the process.

“The moment you check in — how happy am I now? — you feel happiness less,” Dr. Mauss said. “The very question interferes with happiness.”

The pursuit of happiness is not a one-size-fits-all journey. The myriad definitions of happiness, ranging from experiencing joy and excitement to acquiring knowledge or material possessions, reflect the diversity in our understanding of what truly constitutes happiness.

Interestingly, Dr. Mauss’s research reveals that when individuals equate happiness with material acquisition, it often correlates with a decline in well-being.

In her groundbreaking 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Dr. Mauss explored cultural variations in the conceptualization and pursuit of happiness.

The study showed that in the United States, the quest for happiness is predominantly an individualistic endeavor, focusing on personal emotional experiences. This self-oriented approach was found to be associated with lower well-being.

In contrast, East Asian cultures, where happiness is perceived through a more social and collectivist lens, showed a positive correlation between valuing happiness and increased well-being. In these cultures, happiness is often linked to communal harmony and the well-being of others, emphasizing outward-looking sentiments.

So, the relentless pursuit and prioritization of happiness can lead to constant self-monitoring and self-judging of one’s emotional state, creating a cycle of emotional self-scrutiny with potentially detrimental consequences.

Dr. Mauss emphasizes that this constant self-assessment can disrupt the experience of ‘flow,’ a state of complete immersion in an activity, diminishing the positivity of pleasant emotions and amplifying the negativity of unpleasant ones.

Moreover, prioritizing happiness also comes with avoiding or suppressing negative emotions, which is linked to various adverse outcomes, including depression and a decrease in overall well-being.

Dr. Mauss advocates for a balanced approach to our emotions, acknowledging their presence without allowing them to dominate our lives. Emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, are integral to our existence, serving as guides to our behaviors.

So, the Happiness Paradox teaches us that the pursuit of happiness is not a mere chase for positive emotions but a holistic approach to well-being that involves embracing all emotions and focusing on meaningful, outward-looking sentiments.

In the end, we need not ask, 'How happy am I?" Instead, we ought to wholeheartedly accept and embrace the full spectrum of our emotions, be it joy or sorrow, excitement or boredom. These emotions, in all their varied shades, are integral threads in our existence, each one contributing to the richness and depth of our human experience.

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