Is trying too hard to be happy making you sad?

Meagan Malesic, Asst. Features Editor

     The pursuit of happiness is a concept that is fundamentally engraved into American culture. After all, the Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as one of our basic human rights. As long as we aren’t harming others, we are expected to live life to the fullest and pursue happiness at any cost. But what if this cost is actually causing harm to ourselves?

     Multiple recent psychological studies suggest that this may be the case. The overemphasis that our culture forces upon happiness may be causing just the opposite. That is, in the endless pursuit of happiness, we are actually fueling a cycle of continued sadness, stress, and anxiety. The irony in this almost laughable – focusing too much on happiness can actually increase levels of depression and make us feel worse about ourselves and our overall quality of life.

     Why do Americans feel so much pressure to constantly be happy? This answer lies in the values that we not only place on ourselves, by on others. The common occurrence within our culture to compare ourselves to other people as a means of measuring our own success and happiness is extremely harmful to our overall quality of life. By constantly drawing comparisons with others, we tend to be harsher on ourselves and allow for self-defeating and anxiety-ridden attitudes to take over. According to the World Health Organization, America is the most anxious country in the world, with nearly one-third of its citizens suffering from an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives. Societal pressures within our country to be happy and constantly compare our happiness with others may be what is fueling these precariously high levels of anxiety.

     Despite our society’s belief that happiness is a fundamental right, there is no evidence that suggests prioritizing happiness actually makes us happy. In fact, most research is now suggesting just the opposite – that overly pursuing happiness can lower self-esteem levels, promote anxiety and mood disorders, and increase stress and even physical illness.  

     Now, this may all seem a bit overwhelming. If even trying to be happy doesn’t make us happy, what possibly can? Don’t worry – there is a silver lining here. Research suggests that it is not the pursuit or desire to be happy that causes negative effects, but rather, how we perceive happiness. If we simply adjust our expectations and outlook about happiness, chances are we will find ourselves much happier in the long run. One positive mindset shift that can promote better overall quality of life is finding happiness in everyday “little” things, rather than only associating happiness with large successes and monumental triumphs. All too often, our society views happiness as being synonymous with achievement, and this is not the case. Happiness can be found in ordinary day-to-day events that we often take for granted. Rather than constantly striving to achieve happiness through success, allow happiness to happen naturally – whether it be through enjoying the weather, laughing with friends, or indulging in a good cup of coffee. In this light, happiness seems much more attainable and is not surrounded by societal pressures to succeed.

     Another important key to achieving true happiness is to allow yourself to feel unhappy. As backwards as this may sound, other “negative” emotions – such as anger, sadness, and disappointment – are necessary in order to maintain a happy, high-quality life. Negative emotions are simply a fact of life and allow us to process our feelings and experiences. Unfortunately, our culture has stigmatized the emotion of sadness with failure, while happiness is associated with success. This is completely untrue, and is a direct result of our society’s obsession with optimism and maximized “feel-good” emotions. It is essential that when feelings like sadness arise, we do not allow them to consume us and define us as failures; rather, we should be open to these emotions in order to reach a state of emotional catharsis, self-reflection, and renewal. Oftentimes, negative emotions are the gateway to reestablishing balance. By accepting our negative feelings and embracing them as a natural and necessary part of life, we are better able to deal with them, find it easier to cope with stress and sadness, and actually increase our self-esteem and resilience levels.  Therefore, try attributing value to your emotions that you have been programmed by society to view as harmful or weak. 


     Recognizing that it is impractical to expect to be happy all of the time can actually directly increase your likelihood at finally achieving higher levels of happiness and contentment in life.

     On the flip side, the realization that sadness is an inevitable (and invaluable) part of life can only mean that happiness too is bound to happen. Happiness is not something that needs to be sought out or achieved; it is a fact of life that it will come to you. It is impossible to “capture” happiness or expect to find it through comparisons or achievements. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy being happy and even prefer it to other emotions. By all means, when you are happy, recognize it, and fully soak it up and experience it for all that it is worth. After all, happiness is a good thing – just don’t drive yourself crazy trying to chase it.