The quickest route to happiness may be to do nothing
How do you envisage the pursuit of happiness?
For many, it is a relentless journey, and the more you put in, the more you get out. Just consider the following episode from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling inspirational memoir Eat, Pray, Love, in which she recounts some advice from her Guru. “The quickest route to happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it,” she writes. “You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.
And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.”
While this kind of attitude may work for some, the latest scientific research suggests that it can also seriously backfire for many people – leading, for instance, to feelings of stress, loneliness, and personal failure. According to this view, happiness is best seen as kind of timid bird: the harder you strive to catch it, the further it flies away.
These findings help to explain the familiar stress and disappointment that some feel during special events such as their birthday, Christmas or New Year’s Eve. But the research also has profound consequences for your long-term wellbeing, with some useful guidance for arranging your broader life goals.
The quickest route to happiness is actually simple...
Iris Mauss, now at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the first psychologists to explore the idea scientifically.
She says she was inspired by the sheer volume of self-help books that have been published in the US in last couple of decades, many of which presented the quickest route to happiness as the sine qua non of existence. “Wherever you look, you see books about how happiness is good for you, and how you basically should make yourself happier, almost as a duty,” she says. But are those volumes only setting people up for disappointment?
“People might set very high standards for their own happiness as a function of this – they may think they should be happy all the time, or extremely happy, and that can set people up to feel disappointed with themselves, that they fall short – and that could have these self-defeating effects.”