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.


The myth of security– Embracing vulnerability, uncertainty, and ambiguity in our relationships and in our world

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “– Helen Keller
Something many of us yearn for in our relationships is a sense of security. We long to feel certain and secure in our relationships, to feel like no matter what, we will not be hurt in this love.  Where there’s doubt or insecurity, we view it as a sign that something is wrong—that something needs to be fixed.

And our desire for security extends beyond our intimate relationships. On all levels, our world appears to be increasingly focused on trying to ensure we won’t be hurt. Our federal government even has an entire cabinet department dedicated to trying to help us feel secure—Department of Homeland Security.

We attempt to eradicate feelings of insecurity in the hope that if we can just feel secure—secure in ourselves, our relationships, our world around us—then we will be “safe” and happy.

But What If Trying to Feel Secure Actually Makes Us Less Secure?

Sometimes it can be useful to exercise more security in our lives: we lock our doors at night, get life insurance, or carry “bear spray” when camping in the backwoods. However, much of the time we are trying to achieve a feeling of security—a certainty that we aren’t vulnerable to hurt. But suppose our attempts to try to feel secure actually make us more alone, more insular, and more insecure?

Eve Ensler on Security

This is the argument that Eve Ensler, the Tony Award winning playwright, activist, and creator of the Vagina Monologues, makes in her TED talk on the subject of security. In her eloquent and inspiring talk, Ms. Ensler argues that our attempts to feel invulnerable and secure—personally, politically—are actually making us more insecure through the loss of connection with our shared experience. Ms. Ensler encourages people to willingly embrace difficult thoughts and feelings—including insecurity, doubt, ambiguity, and fear—in the service of living a life that is truly more connected, vibrant, and meaningful.

In a similar vein, but drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I help the people I work with in therapy accept their doubts and insecurities in the service of moving towards what’s important to them. As Ms. Ensler points out, sometimes our lives become very small and unsatisfying when we spend all our energies trying to be secure.

She says:

“Real security is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present…In the shared future… the end goal will be to become vulnerable, realizing the place of our connection to one another rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone.”

This has been my experience as well. I highly recommend watching Ensler’s entire talk.

Less is More: Improving your relationship with the “less stuff, more experiences” strategy

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

Hans Hofmann

Oversaturated. That’s how it can feel once the holidays have ended. And now that the last gift has been unwrapped, the last big meal cooked, and the relatives have gone back home, you might want to ask yourself this question… “What, of all of that, helped me be more of the person I want to be and helped me have the kind of meaningful relationships I want to have?” Did that one extra present you raced around to get really bring you and your loved one closer? Did that pricey bottle of bubbly you bought bring lasting happiness as you ushered in a new year? When you look back on it all, what is it that you’ll remember from the holidays?

I know for me, I’ll remember my little niece climbing into the small bed in the tiny cottage we rented at the beach, snuggling tightly in between my partner, our two dogs, and me. I won’t remember what we bought her for Christmas or what she bought us. And while I’ll soon forget the present my mother bought me, I will remember sitting in front of the fireplace after everyone had gone to bed watching “A Christmas Carol” with her for the 10,000th time. Looking back on it, though I tend to spend a lot of my resources (i.e. time, money, energy) on the “stuff” of my life, the things that are really meaningful to me tend to be the “experiences” of my life, which often require few resources at all.

The Huffington Post recently came out with their Best TED Talks of 2011 and on that list Graham Hill’s talk entitled Less Stuff: More Happiness.  His very brief talk connected with something I’ve been thinking about recently — how can I live a richer, fuller, and more joyful life through having less “stuff”? When I reflect on what has brought me closer to those I love in this world, at the top of that list are almost exclusively experiences we’ve shared together. So, as a theme for this new year (“theme” sounds so much more enticing to me than “resolution!”) I have decided to focus on putting more of my resources on sharing experiences with my loved ones and less resources on accumulating more stuff for me or them.

Here are some tips to help improve your relationship through having less “stuff”:

  1. Give gifts of experiences, not stuff: Make a commitment with your loved one that for all those events when you tend to buy each other gifts (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc.), you’re going to spend your resources on giving each other experiences rather than material things. These experiences could be a wonderful meal together or a weekend getaway or getting to hear your favorite concert together. Anything that doesn’t include accumulating more “things” could count.
  2. Have a purge competition: Choose a day when you and your loved one(s) go through your house and see how much stuff you can get rid of. There’s a great list of local non-profit organizations (Portland, Oregon area) where you can donate anything from clothes, to books, to electronic equipment. Whoever has the most stuff to get rid of at the end of the day wins. Just remember that the “prize” for the winner probably shouldn’t be more stuff, but rather, maybe a nice meal, having the dishes done for them for a whole week, or maybe just bragging rights!
  3. Track your “experiences” versus “stuff” budget: If your household maintains a budget that you monitor periodically, you might want to consider adding a category to distinguish how much money you are spending on “stuff” versus “experiences”. You might even want to set some guidelines in your family about how much of your budget you want to spend on accumulating more things as opposed to having more experiences.
  4. Watch Graham Hill’s “Less Stuff: More Happiness”  talk with your loved one and come up with a plan of how you can devote more of your relationship resources towards having meaningful experiences together and less towards accumulating more stuff.

With this strategy, you may just find that you come to the end of 2012 feeling a little less oversaturated and with a few more wonderful  memories of times shared over the course of the year.

And if you’re looking for more relationship tips and resources, check out our relationships resources page.

Gratitude — It’s not just for Thanksgiving anymore

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” –John Milton

It’s a rainy, cold November day. Everyone is home from school and work. Uncle Fred from Umatilla and Aunt Betty from Wenatchee are sitting on the couch arguing about who’s going to win the big game. Is that turkey I smell?…Wait, it must be that special day when I’m supposed to be thankful!

Thanksgiving is a beautiful tradition. It’s one of my favorite holidays. And yet, once the last bit of stuffing has been stuffed and the last antacid has been swallowed, what happens the thankfulness? Like champagne, gratitude seems to have become a “special occasion” sort of thing; we indulge in it when it’s a big event, but it’s not really a part of our everyday life.

I think the same thing can happen in intimate relationships. When we first enter into an intimate relationship, we often go out of our way to do those thoughtful little things for our partners — flowers, cooking a special meal, giving a backrub. And, in the beginning, we are also usually pretty conscious about expressing our gratitude for things, in part, because those things are pretty obvious and easy to notice. But time passes, toilet seats are left up, dog hair accumulates, soccer practices seem to multiply, and amidst that everyday life, we become less aware of the ways in which the people in our lives continue to do loving things for us. And if we’re not aware, it’s tough to be grateful.

And yet, even though there may be less flower-giving and candlelight dinners, it may be the case that if we stop to notice, we’d see our partners doing all sorts of loving things for us and for the relationship — you know, like offering to pick up dinner when they know you’ve had a busy day or taking the dogs for a walk even though it’s raining and it’s technically “your day” to walk them. Noticing and expressing gratitude for these “everyday interpersonal gestures” (that’s psychobabble for thoughtful behaviors) is not only a nice thing to do, it appears to be very important in terms of maintaining connection and satisfaction in long-term relationship.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Universities of California, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles found that expressing gratitude for these “everyday interpersonal gestures” can have profound impact on long-term romantic relationships. When a partner expressed gratitude for something their partner did, both partners reported feeling significantly more connection and deeper satisfaction in the relationship. In another study, researchers found that when they asked people to notice things for which they were grateful, those people reported being 25% happier at the end of 10 weeks than were people who were asked to notice either hassles or just regular events. So, it’s pretty clear that expressing gratitude is beneficial both for the receiver and the one expressing the gratitude.

As I said above, the first step in increasing how grateful you are in your intimate relationship is noticing things for which you are grateful. So, here are a couple of ideas you might want to incorporate into your “everyday-can-be-thanksgiving” tradition:

  1. Practice a gratitude meditation: There are lots of them available out there on the web. Here is one gratitude meditation that I like (It’s titled – Guided meditation on Kindness & Gratitude and you’ll find it on the middle of the page under “Other meditation practices)It doesn’t have to be anything complex. Just commit to spending a specified amount of time every day in quiet, reflecting on those things for which you are grateful. You could even do this with your partner.
  2. Start a gratitude listserv: Gather together a bunch of friends and family that would all like to work on this idea of gratitude. Once a week, everyone sends an email to everyone else in the group stating at least one thing for which they are grateful. You may be surprised at how it also deepens your relationships with those in the group.
  3. Carry it with you: Find a symbol to remind you of your intention to be more grateful. It can be a rock, a leaf, or just an index card that says “gratitude”. Put it in your purse or wallet. Then each time you see it, see if you can notice one thing for which you are grateful right in that moment.
  4. Make it a ritual: When you are talking about your day with your partner, make sure that among the “My boss is stressing me out” and “What are we going to do about that roof leak” you also tell your partner something you noticed that they did for you or your relationship that you appreciated.
  5. It’s not all about the things: When you’re focusing on being grateful for your partner, don’t just focus on the things that he/she does for you. Also let your partner know how grateful you are for who they are as a person. Is your partner funny, or thoughtful, or creative, or hard working? When you notice those qualities in your partner that you appreciate, tell him or her about it.

Just the other day, I received an email from a friend and colleague and she closed it with “Have a happy gratitude day.” How lovely! Consider making gratitude a more central part of your relationship every day, not just when you break out the good silverware. You won’t be disappointed in the results.

Money Can Buy Happiness, but Hobbies are Even Better

If you saw his Ted talk, you may already be familiar with Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research on happiness. Dr. Kahneman and a group of researchers surveyed people across income brackets in a national sample on their overall happiness.

Those who made $90,000 reported being twice as happy as those who made $20,000. However, an interesting thing happens around the $50,000 mark: happiness begins to level off.  There’s little difference between the happiness of people who make between $50,000 – 89,000 and those in the highest income groups (e.g., over $100,000).

A Key to Increased Happiness: Engage in Active Pursuits

Kahneman and colleagues offer an explanation for this trend. They suggest that higher income people, although they work more, spend more free time in active pursuits (e.g., exercise) than passive activities (e.g., watching TV). The researchers suggest the more important key to happiness is how we spend our time off.

From this perspective, money is important so long as it allows us to actively engage what we enjoy. However, once we reach a certain income level (about $50,000 a year or so), we might better spend our time focused on doing fun things than on making more money. As a more concrete example, the researchers suggest we should be working harder to reduce commutes—which people particularly hate—and spend more time in the company of people we enjoy, as people tend to rate the latter particularly high.

Think about this the next time you think about getting a new job or promotion that will earn you more money but may lead to longer hours and a longer commute. Also, consider more carefully how you spend your free time. Is it something active (e.g., exercising, socializing) or passive (e.g., vegging out)?


Kahneman, D., Krueger, A.B., Schkade, D., Schwartz, N., & Stone, A.A. (2006). Would You Be

Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. CEPS Working Paper No. 125.