bumpy road to happiness

The bumpy road to happiness

By Pr. Ilona Boniwell

I am a happiness researcher, scholar, practitioner and writer, and yet I often have moments when happiness appears over-rated – when evaluating multiple reincarnations of smilies, glancing through yet another magazine article on ten steps to happiness, or coming across a gudget from the “happiness industry”. There is something that just doesn’t ring right…

Imagine three different musical experiences in which you listen to a recording of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring.  In the first experience, you simply listen to Rites of Spring.  In the second experience, while you listen to the music, you try to make yourself as happy as possible.  In the last experience, while you listen to Rites of Spring, you adjust a movable measurement scale to indicate your moment-by-moment level of happiness.  In which case do you enjoy the music the most? According to a randomised experiment by Schooler et al. (2003), the answer is: the first musical scenario.  Analysing post-test ratings of enjoyment, researhers found that experiment participants who were instructed to try to make themselves as happy as possible or to provide real-time evaluations of how happy they were, actually enjoyed the musical recording less than did participants who simply listened to the music… Thus, too much focus on trying to be happy or evaluating positive feelings, as opposed to just experiencing these feelings, may disrupt one’s affective experience.

And this is not all. Watching a comedy after being propped to feel happier results in disappointment, whilst being told nothing leads to enjoying it (Mauss et al, 2011). According to another study (Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011), participants who place greater importance on attaining happiness feel lonelier, more depressed and less purposeful.

How do we make sense of it all? Happiness is clearly a learnable skill, as long as we focus on the process rather than attaining an outcome, and don’t try too hard.  There is no problem in knowing that positive actions such as exercise, mindfulness, savouring or gratitude contribute to happiness, as long as we are doing these for their own sake, rather for the ultimate goal of happiness.


Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(3), 222-233.

Ford, B. Q., Shallcross, A. J., Mauss, I. B., Floerke, V. A., & Gruber, J. (2014). Desperately seeking happiness: Valuing happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnosis of depression. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 33(10), 890-905.

Schooler, J. W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). Happiness can be Self-Defeating. The psychology of economic decisions, 1, 41.

icone A Propos

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