A friend — we’ll call her Polly, short for Pollyanna, for reasons that will become obvious — is unrelentingly positive. Always cheerful. Always enthusiastic. She’s the happiest person I know.
Except, according to her, she’s not. She says she is often unhappy, especially when she actually does feel happy… but then thinks she should be really, really happy.
Like when she’s out with friends. She’s having fun, but shouldn’t she be having be more fun? Or when her company lands a new customer; success is gratifying, but shouldn’t success be more gratifying?
Since she knows happiness is not just a good thing but is also good for her, she wants to be happier. So she works hard to be happier. In her own words, she’s focused and driven and almost consumed with being happier.
Which makes her less happy.
She’s not alone. Research published in Emotion found that over-emphasizing the pursuit of happiness — in short, trying too hard to be happier when you’re already happy — can work against you and cause greater levels of unhappiness.
As the researchers write:
Valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.
Paradoxically, therefore, valuing happiness may lead people to be less happy just when happiness is within reach.
The result is a form of what’s commonly known as “toxic positivity.” In some cases, toxic positivity involves trying to convince someone that everything is fine — instead of listening and empathizing and allowing them to work through a serious issue in a more natural and healthy way.
In my friend’s case, her constant quest to find an even brighter side of every positive situation — an inward-facing form of toxic positivity — causes her to undervalue what she’s actually feeling and process it in an unhealthy way.
To sum it all up: Trying to be happier makes her less happy.
What can you do if that sounds like you? (What can I do, because it sometimes sounds like me?)
Prioritize positivity, not happiness.
Researchers who conducted a 2020 study published in Journal of Positive Psychology divided participants into two basic groups:
- People who valued happiness: Happiness valuers agreed with statements like “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy” and “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me.” They also agreed with statements like “I see myself as failing in life when feeling depressed or anxious.”
- People who prioritized positivity: Positivity prioritizers agreed with statements like “I structure my day to maximize my happiness” and “I look for and nurture my positive emotions.”
The result? The people who valued happiness — who expected to be happy — tended to struggle when faced with negative emotions. They felt like failures.
On the other hand, people who prioritized positivity saw negative emotions as a part of life. The result is a greater degree of emo-diversity: As research shows, experiencing positive emotions and negative emotions is an essential aspect in overall health and subjective well-being.
Sometimes you’re up. Sometimes you’re down. What matters is working through the downs to get back up.
Or as the Stoics would say: While you can’t control what happens to you, you can control how you respond.
The bottom line? Focus on how you respond when things don’t go your way. Focus on what you can do, not on how you feel… and as a result, over the long term you’ll actually feel happier.
And speaking of long term…
Prioritize future happiness.
The key? Prioritizing behaviors in the moment that are likely to lead to future happiness. Helping others. Exercising. Working to achieve a long-term goal. Building habits that make you healthier, wealthier (if that’s your thing), and wiser.
In short, seeing happiness as a journey, not a destination.
And as a by-product of what you do.