Is happiness overrated?

    Happiness is big business. Thousands of self-help books and programs promise they have the path to it. Psychologists all over the country are studying how we can attain it. Smart Phone apps allow you to track it.

    But, some researchers say – stop chasing it!

    In their weekly conversation, WHYY’s Behavioral Health reporter Maiken Scott and psychologist Dan Gottlieb discussed why some psychologists say the relentless pursuit of happiness is a real downer.

    Scott: A lot of researchers are devoting their time to finding out how we can achieve happiness, and for a long time that was one of the hottest topics in mental health..

    Gottlieb: Yes, we used to think that happiness was the thing, and now we’re getting what could be considered a happiness backlash. It was really started by Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert who wrote a very important book called “Stumbling on Happiness,” where he suggested that happiness is something that we stumble upon, that we shouldn’t pursue it, that we don’t even know what it is.

    And now even Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, the founding father of positive psychology who has written so much about happiness, even he now feels that the field of mental health is getting happiness wrong. And recently a team of researchers from Yale and the University of Denver reviewed a lot of the existing research out there and found that pursuing happiness can often make people feel worse and disappointed, self-absorbed..

    Scott: Do you think we generally misunderstand what happiness is, or should be?

    Gottlieb: I think we don’t know what happiness really is. I mean, is it a wonderful ice cream Sunday – that makes you happy. Then you watch a child go off to college, that makes you happy too! What is it really, we don’t know, and does it get sustained, or is it something that is temporary? I give a lecture called “Is Happiness necessary” and in it I say that the pursuit of happiness can make you miserable. That’s not the thing we are after. What we are really after is well-being.

    Scott: What are some of the elements of well-being?

    Gottlieb: We don’t look at things that are about self. We look at things that are about other. And what contributes to well-being is feeling that we’ve made a contribution to the world, that we have helped others with their lives, that we care about things outside of ourselves. I think the other issue that contributes to well-being is love. If we have love in our lives, and if we can feel love for others, feel it, not just know that we love, but feel it, a bodily sensation. And finally, if we feel that our lives, the lives we live day by day are consistent with our deepest values, that’s a very important question to reflect on that contributes to well-being.

    Scott: In your practice, do you see a lot of people who are chasing after some idea of happiness that they have?

    Gottlieb: Sure they do. An idea of happiness or personal justice that they think will make them happy. I hear phrases like “that’s not fair – that’s not fair that I have to live with x or y.” And the message is if I get what I think I deserve then I will be happy. Of course that’s not true. The question is living with what I have to live with, with grace, with joy, ideally even ideally with gratitude. And then you will get a sense of well-being, it’s not getting what you think you deserve, it’s living with what you have.

    Scott: Do you think we often are happy, but are too busy to even notice how happy we are?

    Gottlieb: Yes, more often than not. And if we can sit quietly, we can feel the love that’s in our lives, it’s there all the time, we just don’t notice it.

    On the next Voices in the Family with Dan Gottlieb: the so-called dark side of happiness with psychologists June Gruber and Dacher Keltner.Gruber has written, in part, A Dark Side of Happiness?  How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. She’s an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Director of the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology (YPEP) Laboratory. Monday (6/13/11) at noon.

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