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Should we abandon the relentless pursuit of happiness?

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Published on 16 January 2017

Helen Driscoll
Helen Driscoll

While there’s a widely held belief that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that happiness should be our primary goal, Dr Helen Driscoll, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, argues that we might actually be happier if we concerned ourselves less with pursuing happiness and embraced our other human emotions a little more.

The pursuit of happiness is inescapable in today’s society, obsessed with sharing via social media; research happiness in online bookstores and you will find any number of books claiming to a greater or lesser extent, to enable you to achieve sustained happiness. Newspapers and magazines churn out article after article on the latest happiness trends. Click-bait stories invite you to learn about simple tricks you have been missing all your life, which could have made you happy had you only known about them. Social media feeds are packed with ‘inspirational’ quotes, which are largely focused on the pursuit of happiness.

Dr Driscoll says: “Many of us spend our lives chasing the house, the job, the holiday, the partner, the self-help book, the lifestyle, that will make us happy. We also want happiness for our children. How often do we hear parents say that they just want their children to be happy? Parents often seem uncomfortable with the idea of their children being unhappy, even momentarily, and may feel they are doing an inadequate job as parents if they fail to ensure their children’s happiness.

“Despite all of this effort, happiness can be difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to sustain. She says: “The key obstacle is that sustaining very high levels of happiness over long periods of time are unlikely to have adaptive value. To illustrate the problem, imagine a world in which all of us were completely and blissfully happy all of the time. What would happen? Would we be driven to develop, to achieve, to seek out new partners, to have children? If we were completely happy, why would we do these things? And that is the problem. Consequently, the human condition has evolved to find happiness a somewhat slippery and elusive quality. We have it sometimes, we know what it feels like, and we know how good it is. When we don’t have it, we want it. When we have it, we want to hang on to it, yet somehow it seems to slip away again. From an evolutionary perspective, happiness has far more adaptive value when it is always just a little out of reach, driving us to seek it out and keep it, yet always pulling away from us. This is why we quickly readjust to gains and revert to the level of happiness we had previously.”

What is more, the cultural belief in the importance of happiness may mean that unhappiness is interpreted as personal failure, leading to yet more unhappiness. There are, as always, individual differences. If I were to ask you to think of someone who is always happy I think most people reading this would be able to think of someone who appears to manage this. Yet sometimes even those who seem to embody happiness are privately beset by sorrow.”

From an evolutionary perspective, she says the belief that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that happiness is sustainable indefinitely do not hold weight. It is also the case that more negative emotions are useful to us and have adaptive value.

Dr Driscoll adds: “To understand the adaptive importance of the range of human emotions, imagine not having some of them. If you did not feel any guilt, would you make amends for wrongdoings? If you did not feel love, would you be able to form relationships and care for your children? If you did not feel anger, what would prevent others from exploiting you? And if you did not feel fear, would you still be alive?

“Emotions have been selected during our evolutionary history because they have shaped our behaviour in ways that have helped us to survive, form relationships, extract benefits from social living, and crucially, reproduce successfully. This does not mean that we should make decisions based purely on emotion. We are also equipped with high-level cognitive abilities to help us to make decisions. Emotions are not always fine-tuned and acting impulsively on raw, intense emotion without thinking is often a recipe for disaster. But emotions do provide us with useful information that guides our behaviour in potentially adaptive ways.”

The conventional view is that happiness, for most people, depends on the balance of positive and negative emotions experienced, says Dr Driscoll. If you experience predominantly positive emotions most of the time you will likely be a generally happy person. However, an evolutionary perspective reveals some key obstacles to achieving sustained happiness in this conventional sense.

Dr Driscoll believes that having an understanding of the evolutionary basis of happiness and a realistic understanding of the limits of happiness can be liberating. In contrast, believing your purpose in life is to find true and lasting happiness and then experiencing that as unattainable is, she thinks, is more harmful.

Click here for the full article.

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