Probably all of us can relate to the nagging letdown after an event you had been looking forward to for days, or weeks, or months. The times when nothing went especially wrong but the experience just didn’t meet the internal hype you has created. This is a special kind of disappointment. And now researchers have something to say about this unpleasant aspect of chasing happiness.
In a 2003 experiment by Schooler and colleagues, people were asked to listen to a piece of music (selected for them) and some of them were instructed to “try to make themselves as happy as possible” from listening. They found that the people who tried to be happy reported being made less happy from the experience. The people who just listened to the music without TRYING to be happy, got greater happiness from it. Hmmmm…
A more recent study looked at women who said they thought it was very important to be happy and their perceived rates of happiness while under low stress. They found that the women who said it was more important to be happy reported less happiness than women who “valued” happiness less. So, this does suggest that we can set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect happiness as a crucial outcome.
But it is good for us to be happy!?! Absolutely it is. It just seems that chasing happiness as an expectation may not be the best way to get it. In the music study, the people who listened and just let themselves be open to whatever the experience offered reported more of a happiness boost. Being present, without needing the experience to be anything in particular actually helps with enjoyment.
Maybe you can apply this non-striving approach to the upcoming holiday season. Rather than setting yourself (or a partner) up by building towards an imagined happiness, how about going into things with a curiosity about how it might make you feel? Happiness will come and bless us, if we are open to it. Focusing on an experience itself, in all its joys and imperfections, will bring you there more quickly than mentally trying to get to a treasured happiness finish line.
Reminds me of orgasm…the more we chase, the farther away it can seem to get. But when we focus on the actual moment and sensations for their own sake… wow, that’s when a big juicy burst of happiness arrives like an unexpected gift. Be ready for it.