Full Circles

Reflections on Living

The Dark Side of Pursuing Happiness


The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.

– Eric Hoffer (1954)

Have you considered that there is something dysfunctional about our deep cravings for the pursuit of happiness? It’s like most things in our lives. If we eat too much of it, it spoils the good of having enough.

Dark SIde of Happiness Graph

 This is about the dark side of the pursuit of happiness.

The Negative of Happiness

My profession in the mental health circles are guilty for propagating this overly simplistic and self-defeating idea. Sometimes it’s bubble wrapped in the paddings of positive psychology. At other times, it’s coated in the zeitgeist of “client’s goal” when they tell us that all they want is “TO BE HAPPY.” Shouldn’t we listen and abide by their goals?

This is the danger. We fail to see the negative impact of over-valuing something so innocuous, and forget to critically evaluate the shadow side of this pursuit.

A recent study by Ford, Mauss, and Gruber 1 caught my attention. I was totally floored when I read this.  Published in a well regarded American Psychological Association journal Emotion, these researchers wanted to find out if there were negative consequences to people who valued happiness to an extreme. It turns out that not only do these “happiness-chasers” have worse psychological health, such as experiencing depressive symptoms, there were also associated with bipolar disorder! Based on the combination of studies that Ford and colleagues did, they were even able to demonstrate that participants with extreme valuing of happiness were at an increased risk of developing manic symptoms, as well as maintaining feature of bipolar if they were already diagnosed with such an issue.

I was aware that the clients that I’ve met through the years with bipolar symptoms sometimes have inflated and grand goal-setting, which spirals them in a self-defeating cycle. But what Ford and colleagues indicated in their study was a flashbulb moment for me.

This has important implications for us to come full circles and reconsider the ethos of knowledges-based, and sometimes hedonistic culture. Happiness does have it’s dark side.

As a psychologist, I’m going to take a more specific angle. I’m going to make the case about about the negative impact of our “happiness-chase” on our emotional wellbeing.

1. Focusing on the Outcome Does Not Get You the Outcome

Jonathan Schooler and colleagues’ experiment  provide a brilliant example. They asked two groups of people to do the following:

Group 1: Listen to a piece of  music “in order to make yourself feel as happy as possible”

Group 2: Simply “Listen to a piece of music “

Some of them were also asked to monitor their “Happiness meter” as they listened to the music.

Now, which group do you think were happier at the end of the experiment? It turns out that

1) Listening to music with the goal of trying to become happy reduced happiness, and

2) Monitoring happiness while listening to music also reduced happiness.

Take a moment.  What the heck’s going on?

The very act of seeking happiness has a paradoxical effect on feeling happy.

Instead, Focus on the Process. By this I mean, focus on the stuff that matters to you. Take your eyes off the hedonistic desire to get the results. Life is not a test.

2. It’s not About Positive Thinking

It’s about hopeful and realistic thinking.

Forget about the era of the self-esteem movement, where we were told to look in the mirror and say, “I’m the most confident and smartest guy on the planet” just before you go take your exams, or do a business presentation. It’s not going to work, if you haven’t done your prep.

3. Invest in What’s Vital for You

I once worked with a lady who had suffered chronic social anxiety since her childhood. In her mid-twenties, Emily was isolated and redrawn from social contacts with friends, even though she yearned to be connected with people she knew from before. Her family was not in a good state, and she had to deal with constant quarrels between her parents, and issues of debt in the household. When I first met her, after a setback at her last job, she hasn’t worked for an handful of years. She was confined to the emotional safety of her home, even though she is still engaged with her friends via social media.

Through the course of our work in therapy, Emily revealed to me how she desires to reach out to people, especially youths who have faced similar situations. But she was plagued by her own limitations, and worries about how others might see her. “Who am I to help others when I can’t even help myself?” Our work together was to get her out of her comfort zone, because this is becoming her hell zone. If we allow her to stay comfortable and “happy” being sheltered in the four walls of her house, she is never going to do what’s vital for her: To be able to reach out and help others. We spend a bit of time developing her inner-resources, and as we did that, we raised the call to action. She began making cold calls for job interviews with voluntary organisations.

Naturally, she freaked out at her first job interview, which didn’t translate to a hire. We continued our focus on what we can do (e.g., continue to apply for jobs, and expect 9 rejections out of 10 applications as a given), and not harp on things that are not within our control (e.g., whether the employers hire her or not).

But here she is today. She has been working as a youth worker for more than two years. And she’s loving it. She has literally stepped out of her comfort zone, and moved into her growth-zone. Only because she took a concerted effort to invest in what’s vital for her, which would differ for other individuals.

In our pursuit for happiness, we prevent ourselves from taking risks, in our hopes to avoid failures, and the pains of failing. This keeps us “happy”, but prevents us from growing.

One of my favorite spiritual writers, Thomas Merton says it well, “A man who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly.” (No Man is an Island, p.127)

Take-Away Points

If being in a happy state is what life is all about, drug addicts would be the happiest people on earth. Needless to say, they probably aren’t the most contended  people on the street.

 We concern ourselves too much with the pursuit of happiness. But the paradox is this: In order for happiness to happen, we got to take our eyes off it. Stop chasing the butterfly. We must instead, focus our hearts and minds on the “in-puts.”

 What matters to me? What is something that I hold dear in my life? Am I investing time into it? What are some things that are in my way?

 The late psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl says it well:


Viktor Frankl


Happiness cannot be pursued, but ensued.”



Written by

Daryl Chow, Ph.D. See his website for more info: darylchow.com 


There are already some good blogs on this topic. For example, check out two blogger’s I really enjoy: Mark Manson’s piece on this, The Hidden Cost of Happiness  and Cal Newport’s How to be Happy blogpost.

See also Todd Kashdin’s book, The Upside of Your DarkSide

1 Comment

  1. Great article on this forefront research topic in psychology. It opens my eyes. Thank you.

    Adding reference to it would help interested readers to pursue further.

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