The “tyranny of the expected” can hold us hostage in the present moment.
This notion is a steady throughline in the Buddhist philosophy of living the dharma in daily life. Buddhism outlines the root of human suffering to be one that gets caught up in the endless cycle of desire and attachment. We desire happiness and attach our entire life’s worth to feeling fulfilled in our careers, relationships, and celebrations. More importantly, we decide how to best present that glossy illusion of perfection to our followers and friends online to validate our existence and purpose on this rolling blue marble we call home.
What happens to our psyche when we fall short? Everybody wants to be happy, of course, it is in our nature but when we put so much pressure on the means to achieve that goal the ends are often met with disappointment. If we are expected to be happy every single moment of every single day those unrealistic expectations can significantly bum you out.
A recent psychological deep dive led by Iris Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig Anderson, and Nicole Savino at the University of California, Berkley explores the questions presented earlier — is my unrelenting pursuit of happiness actually making me miserable?
The science behind why forcing happiness hinders joy
Psychologist Iris Mauss was inspired to investigate the unnerving paradox of pouring so much energy into being happy only to experience the opposite effect after noticing the demonstrative boom in self-help authors online and in bookstores. Happiness became a necessity and if you weren’t happy then maybe you were following the wrong wellness coach posting inspirational memes on her social media account. Happiness on its own should not be the marker of a life well-lived. Mauss explains further how immersion in this new trend of how everyone should be focused on the pursuit of happiness at all times can often be a dubious one.
“People might set very high standards for their own happiness as a function of this – they may think they should be happy all the time, or extremely happy, and that can set people up to feel disappointed with themselves, that they fall short – and that could have these self-defeating effects.”
Accessibility to life-hacks to lead a joyous more fulfilling life isn’t toxic on its own but the idea that anybody can achieve these life-altering levels of gaiety without taking into account personal limitations such as finances, bereavement, or mental illness can be toxic. Mauss and her colleagues took these variables into consideration when conducting the following study to survey participants’ current levels of perceived happiness. What other factors come into play?
The more strongly participants agreed and subscribed to the following notions concerning happiness were less happy overall:
- How happy I am at any given moment demarcates how worthwhile my life is
- In order to have a meaningful life, I must feel happy most of the time
- I only value things in my life that directly influence my happiness
The authors wanted to emphasize the results of these findings were not applicable to those under significant amounts of stress due to the loss of a loved one or chronic illness. Wanting to feel happier when times are tough is only human and doing things that will make you feel better certainly won’t make you feel worse than you already do.
This study just highlights the point that participants at a baseline level of happiness that agreed with the following sentiments had a harder time appreciating happy events on a micro-level.
Helpful advice for those people could be practicing mindfulness or keeping a gratitude journal. Better yet, a measured response to life’s inevitable highs and lows can offset feelings of disappointment that things could get better, you could be happier, things will all turn around when you get that dream job or fall in love with that cute boy who walks dogs in front of your house every day. In reality, life is full of triumphs and tribulations and a sober acceptance of this universal truth could bring some levity.
Can we alter happiness in the short-term?
One other study orchestrated by Mauss delved into the possibilities of altering happiness in short-term increments and how effective those cues could be. The same participants from the previous study were asked to read a bogus article emphasizing the grave importance of feeling happy while the other half read a fake piece on how good judgment should be exalted above all else that strategically left out any reference to human emotion.
After the whole group was finished with their assigned reading they all watched an inspirational film about someone who defied all odds to win the Olympics to gauge their reaction to see if reading about the importance of happiness altered their feelings and reactions to the film.
Mauss noted an interesting result in that the participants primed to feel happier and have a hopeful takeaway after watching the film had less of a visceral reaction to the triumph of the human spirit than the control group who read the piece on good judgment.
This further backs the phenomenon that when people are forced to feel a certain type of way about a scenario and the expectation doesn’t quite meet the road to the reality they were led down — they’ll leave that scenario feeling deflated.
Focusing too much on your own happiness can leave you feeling isolated from others and wondering where the time has gone
All of that navel-gazing and questioning what will be the one thing that finally makes you happy dwindles your sense of human connection to the world. Why is this?
According to this press release featuring an interview with Iris Mauss this is how focusing solely on the ends to your own happiness can isolate yourself from others.
“Self-focus might make me engage with other people less, and I might judge other people more negatively if I perceive them to ‘mess’ with my happiness.”
When you disregard the people around you chasing happiness like a phantom they tend to notice. Also, what is the point of achieving lofty goals if you don’t have the special people in your life to share it with? This was my takeaway after watching Pixar’s Soul and reading this study about how relentlessly dogging joy can also alter your perception of time.
A total of 96 participants were asked to write a list of 10 things that would make them happy in life and conversely what 10 things in their life do they currently experience that brings them feelings of elation? Did they want to learn how to play guitar, spend more time with family, or hike the Himalayan mountains? Were participants happier relaying the bounty of blessings they already had? After participants were asked to write these things down researchers gauged their feelings of stress and happiness by asking the following questions:
- All things considered, how happy are you with your life right now?
- How happy do you feel right now?
- Do you feel as if time is boundless or that it is slipping away?
- Do you feel pressed for time?
All things considered, those participants queried about the 10 things in their life that already make them happy reported fewer instances of feeling that time was running away from them. Those participants asked what they could do to improve their happiness felt like they didn’t have enough time in the day to reach the kind of “life goals” they aspired to.
Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto and Aekyoung Kim at Rutgers University who co-authored this study endorse the idea that putting too much pressure on your own happiness ultimately harms you more than it has the power to help you in the following press release.
“The problem is that happiness is something of a nebulous and moving goal – it’s very difficult to feel that you’ve reached maximum happiness and even if you do feel content, you want to prolong those feelings. The result is that you are always left with more to do. Happiness devolves from something pleasant that I can enjoy right now, to something burdensome that I have to keep working at over and over and over.”