Happiness May Not Be Worth Pursuing

Is happiness worth all the trouble?

The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but some psychologists are coming to believe it’s worth the bother.

For me as a parent, happiness is one of the big things I want for my kids. It’s right up there with health and safety. I strive to give them joy in all kinds of ways, ranging from a loving bedtime ritual to special mother-daughter trips to the corner coffeeshop.

So the new research suggesting that joyful moments may be no better than ordinary ones is a little disturbing. Am I chasing the wrong star in aiming to raise happy kids?

A whole series of experiments, reported on in TIME, has recently been published showing differences between how Asians and Europeans or Americans experience happiness. The gist seems to be that positive emotions matter less to Asians than they do to Europeans and Americans.

In one, Japanese respondents to a happiness survey felt fewer emotions than their American counterparts, and felt fewer positive ones. Americans were more likely to rate their experiences as pleasant where the Japanese folks surveyed were neutral. In another study, they found that while Americans are happy when things go well for them personally, for the Japanese happiness is more tied to social harmony.

Yet another study determined that while feeling happy reduces stress and depression among European Americans, it did not have the same beneficial impact for Asian immigrants.

So, the positive impact of happiness varies according to cultural differences. The TIME piece posits that:

Why would Asians and European Americans respond to happiness so differently? One reason suggested in the paper is that Asians seem to define advancement of social harmony as more worthy than mere individual success. This theory about Asian culture is certainly not new — philosophers have compared Confucian ideals regarding interpersonal enlightenment with Western ideals regarding individual achievement at least since the 19th century.

The research is interesting to me because it shows that while personal happiness and positive feelings may be one path to a fullfilling life, they’re far from the only one. Big cultural differences play a part in the Asian vs. Western studies above, but presumably differences in temperament and personality also matter. I know plenty of curmudgeonly academic types who assert that they just don’t want to be happy all the time.

If happiness doesn’t necessarily make people, well, happy, what does? Not to read too much into this, but I’m interested in the critique of positive psychology and the idea that maybe seeking out joy isn’t as beneficial as it seems.

Being that I’m a thoroughly American parent raising American kids, I think I’ll blithely carry on my pursuit of happiness. But I’ll do it with a new awareness that it’s not the only path to the good life.

Do you find that happiness makes you happy? Or do peak experiences pale quickly for you? How valuable is happiness in your life?

Photo: Morgan Jones

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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