Trying to be happy could make you miserable, study finds

Nicola Davis
Photograph: Alamy

Having your heart set on happiness could leave you down in the dumps – at least in the western world, research suggests.

The study, carried out among students living in the UK, found those who said they valued happiness extremely highly tended to show greater signs of depression.

“When you value happiness too much you become too attentive to your emotions and you also kind of struggle with regulating them in a good way,” said Dr Julia Vogt, a co-author of the research from the University of Reading.

The team behind the study say a similar link between excessively valuing happiness and symptoms of depression had previously been found in the US, but it was not clear if the trend would also hold true in the UK.

“I just found this fascinating, that people who want to be happy are actually the ones that are not happy,” said Vogt.

Vogt and colleagues presented 151 students, the majority of them female, with a series of online questionnaires. These examined attitudes from how much they valued happiness to how much their emotions affected them, how easy they found it to put aside emotions, and their levels of depression-related symptoms.

The results, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, reveal that those who valued happiness more had higher scores for symptoms of depression.

The link appears, at least in part, to be down to individuals becoming distracted by their feelings or emotional situations and a lower ability to reframe thoughts or experiences. The latter trait was also linked to symptoms of depression.

The link between valuing happiness and depression was also in part down to bottling up emotions. “Suppression is not [considered a] successful emotional regulation strategy because when you try not to think of something you think [about it] all the time,” said Vogt.

The team repeated the experiment with a further 299 participants, this time adding a questionnaire for mania in order to explore whether the findings were driven by those who experience extreme happiness, such as people with bipolar disorder. The team also asked about the degree to which participants savoured positive experiences.

Again, the results showed that those who valued happiness more also had higher scores for symptoms of depression – a finding that was not affected by their score for mania. But the link was indirect, apparently explained by greater distraction by emotions, positive emotions feeling more intrusive, and a lower ability to savour good moments.

While Vogt said the study cannot prove that valuing happiness too much causes symptoms of depression, she said it was plausible. “If it would be the other way around, if depression would cause higher valuing of happiness, I think then the relationship should be found in all countries,” she said, noting that in Russia and east Asian countries the opposite trend had been found.

Vogt said the link between valuing happiness and symptoms of depression was not limited to those with clinical depression. However, the study has limitations – including that it mainly involved women and did not account for the health or socioeconomic status of participants, although all were young and at university.

While the link between valuing happiness and depression was seen across nationalities, it was stronger in British participants than those from elsewhere or who had dual nationalities – suggesting a cultural influence.

Vogt said research in the pipeline showed that those in the west tended to focus on goals such as promotions, rather than helping others or spending time with family and friends – as has been found in east Asia.That, the team say, suggests people in the UK and US may be focusing on the wrong way to pursue happiness.

“I think most people know what makes them happy when they think about it, and it is probably not the promotion or the big things, it is probably small things,” Vogt said.