Happiness, We Don’t Really Want What We Think We Desire

Psychologist Felicia Zerwas from the University of California, Berkeley, explains that valuing happiness to an extreme degree can lead to increased disappointment when happiness seems within reach.

Happiness, We Don’t Really Want What We Think We Desire

Research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience has revealed that emotions, including happiness, are multi-faceted and influenced by a myriad of factors. While we might strive for a perpetual state of happiness, the reality is that our emotional experiences are diverse and ever-changing. Negative and neutral emotions are an integral part of life, and embracing them allows us to truly appreciate the moments of happiness that come our way.

The Joker’s Insight

Slavoj Zizek, author, and philosopher, once humorously remarked, “We don’t really want what we think we desire.” This statement, although amusing, reflects a profound truth about the nature of happiness. According to Žižek, desire is not satisfied by fulfilling wants but rather by the continuation of desire itself. This challenges the traditional view that happiness can be achieved through constant gratification. Instead, happiness is seen as an ongoing process without an endpoint. This perspective aligns with the idea that meaning and purpose play a vital role in our satisfaction, surpassing the fleeting pleasures of hedonism. Philosophies such as Nietzsche’s focus on the significance of having a sense of purpose, while Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy centers on the search for meaning as a primary driver in life.

In this context, the pursuit of happiness is not about blindly satisfying desires but rather understanding that happiness encompasses more than momentary pleasure. It involves embracing the value of wanting itself and recognizing that meaning and fulfillment are fundamental to a satisfying life. The ancient concept of eudaimonia further emphasizes that subjective happiness is just one aspect of living well. By acknowledging the multifaceted nature of happiness and prioritizing the pursuit of meaning, individuals can embark on a more nuanced and fulfilling journey toward a truly satisfying life.

Embracing Misery

Research conducted by psychologists Jonathan Adler and Hal E. Hershfield sheds light on the value of mixed emotional experiences. Their study involving individuals undergoing psychotherapy revealed that feeling both cheerful and dejected simultaneously preceded improvements in well-being. It suggests that embracing the combination of positive and negative emotions, even if the negative aspect is unpleasant in the moment, allows individuals to derive meaning from their experiences and promotes psychological well-being.

Negative emotions also serve an essential survival function. They act as vital signals, indicating the need to address health issues, relationships, or other significant matters. Attempts to suppress or avoid negative thoughts and emotions are often counterproductive. Studies have shown that suppressing unwanted thoughts can lead to an increase in their recurrence, while pushing back negative emotions may result in emotional overeating and other detrimental effects on mental health.

To cultivate genuine happiness, it is crucial to accept and acknowledge the full spectrum of emotions, including the negative ones. By embracing the role of negative emotions, we can navigate life’s challenges with resilience and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Rather than striving for a constant state of happiness devoid of negative experiences, finding meaning and personal growth in the face of adversity allows for a more profound and fulfilling journey toward genuine happiness. Remember, a thought is just a thought, and a feeling is just a feeling—nothing more.

The Paradox of Happiness

Psychologist Felicia Zerwas from the University of California, Berkeley, explains that valuing happiness to an extreme degree can lead to increased disappointment when happiness seems within reach. A study showcased this phenomenon by inducing participants to value happiness, which resulted in them feeling less happy compared to those who focused on unrelated topics.

The study unraveled two distinct approaches to valuing happiness: aspiring to happiness and concern about happiness. While aspiring to happiness was deemed relatively harmless, concern about happiness proved counterproductive, introducing negative feelings into the pursuit of happiness. Zerwas emphasizes two critical elements that can either make or break the pursuit of happiness. Firstly, the strategies employed to chase happiness play a crucial role. Prioritizing activities that bring positivity into our daily lives has been shown to increase happiness. Secondly, how individuals perceive their emotions during the pursuit of happiness matters significantly. Feeling badly about one’s emotions hampers the goal of happiness, making it less likely to be achieved.

Yet, common fallacies further complicate our journey towards happiness. Misconceptions about what truly brings happiness often lead us astray, such as the belief that spending money solely on ourselves will increase happiness, when research suggests the opposite. Moreover, societal pressures perpetuate the notion that we must be constantly happy to achieve well-being, whereas accepting and embracing our emotions, be they positive or negative, can foster long-term well-being.

To escape the paradoxical treadmill of happiness, Zerwas proposes two intervention modalities. The first focuses on teaching individuals effective strategies tailored to their specific circumstances, allowing them to pursue happiness more successfully. Therapists and mental health practitioners can guide individuals in identifying the most impactful happiness exercises for their lives. The second intervention centers on mindfulness, alleviating the pressure of setting emotional goals and reducing the tendency to feel negative about one’s emotions during the pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness requires a nuanced approach that goes beyond fixating on happiness itself. Accepting and embracing our emotions, employing effective strategies, and incorporating mindfulness into our lives can lead to genuine fulfillment. By unraveling the paradox, we can navigate our path towards happiness with greater clarity and contentment.