Happiness has physical benefits, but if you think about it too much, it might do you harm…That seems to be the point of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article, “Is Happiness Overrated?” But the point gets muddled with contradictory research and confusing explanations of happiness research (a.k.a. “positive psychology”), a field that’s apparently “exploding” right now. From what we can tell, the field isn’t coming to many solid conclusions, despite its popularity. In fact, it seems to us like happiness is still as elusive as it’s always been, despite scientists’ best efforts.
Here are the main points we could distill from the article:
Happiness isn’t only about having fun right now: “Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness,” says Carol Ryff, a professor and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin. Hedonic well-being” refers to short-term, fleeting happiness, and “eudaimonic well-being” refers to long-term satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from things like “having a purpose in life.” Eudaimonic well-being seems to have a greater affect on psychological and physical health as we age.
Don’t listen to research that says parenthood sucks: “Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.”
Don’t keep your eyes on the prize: “Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness,” says the article. “In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy.” But didn’t they just say that living with a sense of purpose is one type of happiness? So couldn’t focusing on our sense of purpose stress us out just as much as focusing on happiness? We’re confused.
You can’t fake it: If you’re volunteering because you think it will make you happier in the long run, think again: “When people say, ‘In the long-run, this will get me some reward,’ that person doesn’t get as much benefit,” says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.
It’s okay to feel “okay”: Studies show that the average person usually feels a little bit better than neutral, and Dr. Ed. Deiner, a retired professor at the University of Illinois, says that might just be good enough. Pursuing happiness can “in itself become a psychological burden,” he says. For self-improvement, Dr. Diener recommends: “Quit sitting around worrying about yourself and get focused on your goals.”
Oh, and then there’s the confusing infographic that accompanies the article:
Is it just us, or does all of this research sound just as confusing and non-committal as a spiritual self-help book? By the end of the article, we practically felt like we’d been indoctrinated into some crazy religion: Don’t do stuff for short-term happiness; do your duty and have kids; be altruistic, otherwise your community service won’t do you any good (what?); and remember, you should be happy to be only moderately happy. It seems to us like happiness research has a long way to go.