Seeking Happiness Can Mean Losing Time

If you set out to find happiness, you might just end up losing time. Don’t take my word for it – ask the researchers who this month published a study titled Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness.

It’s counterintuitive that actively seeking happiness might have negative effects, but it’s not an idea that’s completely new to psychologists.

A groundbreaking 2011 study raised the possibility that seeking happiness could paradoxically make people less happy because “the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.” In a series of studies, the researchers showed that valuing happiness made it harder for people to appreciate positive emotions.

So where does the idea of “vanishing time” fit into this?

The researchers of the more recent study on time and happiness began by pointing out that happiness can be thought of “as a goal whose pursuit ironically pulls the pursuer away from achieving it.” The more you specifically try to be happy, the harder it becomes. The researchers then asked: if people get caught up in a “never-ending pursuit of happiness,” how does that change the way they view time?

In a series of studies, the researchers then showed that being specifically focused on becoming happier tends to make people feel that they have less time available to them. This appears to be true both for people who are naturally more focused on seeking happiness and for people who are encouraged to temporarily focus more on achieving happiness.

However, the problem of “vanishing time” disappears when people believe that they have achieved happiness or that they will soon achieve it. In other words, feeling pressed for time seems to come from a process of pursuing happiness but not believing you have achieved it. If you feel that you need to become happier, you might start to wonder whether you’re running out of time to do it.

These studies can mess with your mindset a little because, after all, aren’t we all trying to achieve happiness? Isn’t that what mental health, and life for that matter, is about?

I’m by no means an expert on happiness, but the way I see it is that, as far as we can tell from current research, the problem is focusing too much on happiness in and of itself as something to be attained. It seems to me that happiness comes from a mixture of being able to enjoy life as it is and being able to set concrete goals for yourself.

But it happens as a byproduct of these things – it doesn’t happen from sitting down and saying “I’m going to try really hard to be happy now.” Thinking too much about happiness as a standalone goal might simply draw your attention to ways in which you aren’t happy. And as this new study shows, it might also lead to the conclusion that you have a set amount of time in which you need to attain happiness and that the happiness clock is ticking.

Image: Flickr/stefanos papachristou