“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
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In his 1851 work American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.” This is basically a restatement of the Stoic philosophers’ “paradox of happiness”: To attain happiness, we must not try to attain it.
A number of scholars have set out to test this claim. For example, researchers writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 found that valuing happiness was associated with lower moods, less well-being, and more depressive symptoms under conditions of low life stress. At first, this would seem to support the happiness paradox—that thinking about it makes it harder to get. But there are alternative explanations. For example, unhappy people might say they “value happiness” more than those who already possess it, just as hungry people value food more than those who are full.
More to the point, wishing you were happier does not mean that you are working to improve your happiness. Think of your friend who complains about her job every day but never tries to find a new one. No doubt she wishes she were happier—but for whatever reason, she doesn’t do the work to improve her circumstances. This is not evidence that she can’t become happier, or that her wishes are bringing her down.