Happiness

1.  When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and contentment. To find out if we’re making progress, we need to compare our past happiness to our current happiness. This creates a problem:  
. . . flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity. Think of being engrossed in a Harry Potter book, playing a sport you love, or catching up with a good friend you haven’t seen in years. You’re in the zone: you’re so immersed in the task that you lose track of time and the outside world.

 

When people are in a flow state, they don’t report being happy, as they’re too busy concentrating on the activity or conversation. But afterward, looking back, they describe flow as the optimal emotional experience. . . . depression leads people to evaluate their daily projects as less enjoyable, and ruminating about why they’re not fun makes the depression worse.

 

2.  The second error was in overestimating the impact of life circumstances on happiness. As psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of positive life events. We think a great roommate or a major promotion will make us happier, over  the fact that we’ll adapt to the new circumstances.

 

3.  The third misstep was in pursuing happiness alone. Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it’s only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and causes depression.

 

4.  The final mistake was in looking for intense happiness. When we want to be happy, we look for strong positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, and excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this isn’t the best path to happiness. Research led by the psychologist Ed Diener reveals that happiness is driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions. When we aim for intense positive emotions, we evaluate our experiences against a higher standard, which makes it easier to be disappointed.

 

Indeed, Mauss and her colleagues found that when people were explicitly searching for happiness, they experienced less joy in watching a figure skater win a gold medal. They were disappointed that the event wasn’t even more jubilating. Studies indicate that an intense positive experience leads us to frame ordinary experiences as less positive. Once you’ve landed a gold medal or won the lottery, it’s hard to take pleasure in finding a great parking spot or winning a video game.