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Stop Chasing Happiness

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happy group of people

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Striving for a state of happiness actually alters the perception of time.

The secret to happiness is low expectations. Or helping others. Or freedom. Or maybe the secret to happiness is being darn good looking. I’m here to tell you, you should not care which—if any—of these is true. Because a new study shows that simply aiming to achieve a state of happiness will make you feel lousy.  

The research, done by investigators at Rutgers University and the University of Toronto, actually explored how pursuing happiness as a goal can change people’s perception of time. The study was done in four ways. Some participants were asked to list things that would make them happier, or, were asked to try and make themselves feel happy while watching a boring movie about bridge building. Another group was asked to list things that had already made them happy, and still others watched a slapstick comedy. Everyone was asked to report how much free time they felt they had during their experience. The results were, the subjects’ perception of time scarcity was influenced by whether or not they felt they were trying to achieve happiness. The group that felt they had already been happy—their happy list had been achieved, or they knew they were watching a comedy which means laughing—didn’t have a sense that time was scarce. The group who were trying to achieve happiness, well, they felt their time was super short.

“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” wrote the researchers. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”

So what to do if you want to achieve happiness? The researchers suggest a couple of ideas to experience more well-being:  

  • Keep a gratitude journal, where you can track and savor happiness.
  • Engage in experiences fully, rather than viewing happiness as a never-ending pursuit.

Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellbeing Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 

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