Can Trying to Be Happy Make You Unhappy? (2011) Mauss


When you value something, you tend to seek it. The inevitable occasional mismatch between expectations you hope for and the reality of an experience causes normal goal-pursuit disappointmnent.

When you value being happy, the disappointment isn’t just par for the course, it actually lowers your happiness, which was your original goal.


“People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.”

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815. 

Research Story

Four researchers from University of Denvr, University of British Columbia, Boston College and Hebrew University did 2 studies to see how valueing happiness affected their happiness.

Study 1 – They recruited 59 women from Denver who had experienced a stressful life event in the last 6 months. They gave them some questionnaires to fill out and found that valuing happiness was associated with lower positive/negative emotions balance, less well-being, less satisfaction with life, and higher depression. When you add stress to the mix it gets interesting. In high stress, both people who value happines and people who don’t are less happy, have less well-being, and are more depressed. However, in more pleasant times of low stress, the participants who valued happiness were less happy than people who didn’t value happiness. 

It may be that when things are going well, people who value happiness think they “should” be happy and it leads to disappointment when they are not. It’s also interesting to note the questions they asked tried to get at valuing happiness to an extreme degree. Questions included: If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me, Feeling happy is extremely important to me, I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy, and To have a meaningful life, I need to feel happy most of the time.

Study #2 – They recruited 70 women and randomly assigned them to 4 groups. All of the groups were told this was an experiment about tv programming and started by watching a 2 minute neutral film clip. The two “value happiness” groups read a fake news article about how important it is to value happiness. The two control groups read a fake article about making accurate judgments. Then they were randomly assinged to watch either a happy (a gold medalist skater celerating) or sad (a happy couple where one dies.) 2-minute film clip to evoke happiness or sadness. Then they rated how much they expereinced joy, happiness, and 7 negative emotions. They then asked them how much they tried to feel more positive during the film or felt disappointed or that they should have enjoyed it more.

They found that the value happiness group tried harder to feel happy during the films. This group had a more negative emotion balance during the happy film than the control group did. Finally, the value happiness group felt more disappointed in how they felt after the clips than the control group.

It seems that valuing happiness leads to less happines because it sets people up for disappointment.

So What – Application

If going overboard on trying to be happy can actually make things worse, it’s worth taking a look at our expectations for happiness.

When we expect to feel a certain way rather than going with the flow and being mindful of what is actually happening, we can become disappointed that we aren’t enjoying things more.

It may also be that when we value happiness a lot, it can lead to overestimating how happy we think something will make us.