The Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Research

Does valuing happiness help us live a joyful life, or does it backfire?

Happiness seems to have a high currency in America. Over the past few years, the number of popular books written on how to increase it has skyrocketed. To name a few: 10% Happier, The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, 52 Lists for Happiness, Choosing Happier, Flourish. Even the US Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right.”

But what is the consequence of valuing happiness? On the one hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to work harder to attain it. On the other hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to feel unhappy if they don’t reach their standards.

In 2011, a group of researchers decided to put this question to the test. They asked adult females who had recently experienced a stressful life event, such as a divorce or accident, to indicate how much life stress had impacted them and how much they highly valued feeling positively (e.g. “feeling happy is extremely important to me”).

As expected, the participants who highly valued happiness tended to have worse overall wellbeing, including more symptoms of depression, and a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions. Interestingly, the researchers only observed this relationship when participants had lower, but not higher, levels of life stress.

Why did life stress affect this relationship between valuing happiness and wellbeing?

Imagine you just went through a tough breakup. You probably wouldn’t expect to feel happy, let alone feel disappointed by negative feelings. Yet, imagine celebrating a best friend’s birthday party. If you didn’t feel happy in this context, you might feel bummed, especially if you highly valued feeling happy.

In the next study, the researchers had female participants either read an article on the benefits of happiness (“valuing happiness condition”) or making accurate judgments (“control condition”). Then, the participants watched either a sad or happy film clip. Compared to those in the control condition, those in the valuing happiness condition felt worse after watching the sad, but not positive, film clip. Feeling disappointed seemed to play a role in this result: valuing happiness led people to feel disappointed during the sad clip, which, in turn, led them to feel unhappy afterwards.

Does this mean that people should stop valuing happiness?

Not exactly. For one, while the researchers did find paradoxical costs of valuing happiness, they studied people who valued it to a high degree. Other researchers have similarly found that highly valuing happiness is linked to depressive symptoms amongst people who previously struggled with major depression. Yet, valuing happiness to a more moderate degree could help people be happier by motivating them to practice different techniques aimed at increasing happiness. In other words, if people have the right ‘happiness building tools,’ some researchers think that valuing happiness to a certain degree could promote it. More research is needed in order to better understand whether there are conditions under which people could benefit from valuing happiness.

Overall, this research does suggest that a cultural fixation on happiness could have costs, especially if it leads people to feel disappointed with experiencing negative emotions. Research increasingly suggests that accepting negative emotions has benefits, and therapies that encourage acceptance of emotions (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) appear effective.

happiness

Portland Psychotherapy Year in Review – 2017

Hello friends and colleagues. Below is an update about new events at Portland Psychotherapy in 2017.

New providers at Portland Psychotherapy help us expand our services:

Kyong Yi LCSW2017 was a year of change! We welcomed three new full time licensed clinicians to our team this year.  We were thrilled to have Kyong Yi, LCSW join our team this summer. Kyong came to us with years of experience working in the VA and community health organizations. Kyong has devoted much of her professional life to serving disenfranchised populations and has a wealth of experience working with individuals struggling with a variety of difficulties including trauma/PTSD, difficulties with anger, substance use/abuse, and depression.  She is also our new Director of Clinical Operations.

Angela Izmirian, Ph.D.We are also very excited to have Angela Izmirian, PhD join us as a licensed psychologist. Angela’s expertise in and passion for serving marginalized communities, including immigrants, ethnically-diverse populations, and gender and sexual minorities will enable us to expand the ways in which we can reach out to and serve diverse members of our community. Angela also conducts transgender assessments and provides the documentation required for hormone therapy and surgery. She also provides couples therapy based on Emotion-Focused Therapy principles. 

Bryce Doehne, PsyDBryce Doehne, PsyD is the newest licensed psychologist to join our team and we are so pleased to have him! Bryce spent much of his training and early career working in university counseling centers and also at Fremont Community Therapy Project, a feminist and trauma-informed training clinic in Seattle, WA. Being a military veteran himself, Bryce has developed expertise in working with individuals who have experienced trauma and substance abuse. Bryce also has an interest in working with some of the struggles that men often face, including the discomfort or stigma that is often faced when accessing mental health services.

We now offer medication management services

Meghan O'Neil, M.D., Ph.D.At Portland Psychotherapy, our focus has always been on providing quality, science-based psychotherapy. However, we have found it increasingly difficult to access qualified medication providers when needed. In response, we have contracted with Meghan O’Neil, MD, PhD to provide medication management services on a part-time basis at Portland Psychotherapy. Dr. O’Neil’s approach to medication and mental health care is a great match with our focus here at Portland Psychotherapy, with an emphasis on collaboration and letting science guide treatment decisions. We are happy to have her on our team and hope that she will also be able to be a resource for some of your clients for medication evaluation and management.

Upcoming training events

We are pleased to continue to host workshops based on topics that colleagues like you have suggested. If there are any speakers you would like us to bring out, please let us know! Upcoming workshops include:

Research at Portland Psychotherapy

Christina ChwylThis year we hired our first full time research coordinator, Christina Chwyl, to help with data collection and research tasks. Christina came to us after graduating from Stanford and has done a fantastic job in her new role. Publications from the past year include:

Publications from 2017

  • Luoma, J.B., Guinther, P., Potter, J., & Cheslock, M. (2017). Experienced-Based Versus Scenario-Based Assessments of Shame and Guilt and Their Relationship to Alcohol Consumption and Problems. Substance Use and Misuse.
  • Luoma, J. B., Hayes, S. C., & Walser, R. (2017). Learning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2nd Edition): A Skills Training Manual for Therapists.
  • LeJeune, J.T. & Luoma, J.B. (2017). Using social enterprise concepts to create a sustainable culture to fund research in a fee-for-service setting. In R.T. Codd (Ed.), Practice-Based Research: A guide for clinicians. Routledge Press.
  • Platt, M., Luoma, J.B., & Freyd, J.  (2017). Shame and dissociation in survivors of high and low betrayal trauma. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 1, 34-49.

Our First Clinical Director

After spending the last ten years or so building Portland Psychotherapy, we’re now at a place where we can pause to reflect on where we have been and where we want to go next as an organization. One outcome of this was our decision to hire our first Director of Clinical Operations (DCO), Kyong Yi, LCSW. Kyong has comes to us with a wealth of administrative and management skill, and splits her time between clinical and administrative roles. We couldn’t think of a better person for this role.

Your support, in all of its form, is essential in the work that we do and our ability to fulfill our mission. Thank you so much!

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