I'm pretty certain we've all been there: you go to college to get a degree, thinking that a diploma will make you happy, and then you graduate and happiness still seems far off.
And then you think, "O.K., if I manage to get this amazing job, that will make me happy for sure."
So, you work really hard, invest time and resources, and land your dream job, but then you start wondering if it was really worth all that hassle. And so on, for years.
Pursuing happiness as a goal, despite the fact that happiness is such an abstract, fluid — and even fickle — concept, has become something of an epidemic. A quick Google Trends search will reveal that global interest in the question of "how to be happy" has remained pretty steady over the past 5 years.
The top related query is "how to be happy or at least less sad," and the countries that seem to have expressed the most interest in this question are the United States and the United Kingdom.
But what is this relentless quest for happiness actually doing to us? It may not come as a surprise that, apparently, dedicating so much energy to finding happiness is likely leaving us bitter and dissatisfied.
"People generally like to feel happy, try to feel happy, and want to be happier," write the authors of a paper recently published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, "even if they are already fairly happy."
Aekyoung Kim, from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and Sam Maglio, from the University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada, have been intrigued by the effects that making a goal out of happiness could have on the psyche.
So, in order to see what happens when we actively decide to try and make ourselves happy at whatever cost, the research duo devised four related studies, mainly looking at one specific outcome: how the pursuit of happiness impacts our perception of time.
The toil of achieving happiness
In the preliminary study, participants had to fill in questionnaires asking them to what degree they valued happiness, and whether or not they often felt that "time was slipping away" from them.
The answers revealed that, the more someone is driven to pursue happiness, the more they feel that they're constantly running short on time.
The second study used either "happy" or "neutral" television programmes — slapstick comedy versus a movie about building bridges — to measure the effect of pursuing happiness on participants' perception of time.
In this instance, the volunteers were either "instructed to try to feel happy while watching a movie" or to "let their emotions flow naturally." Those who were led to think of happiness as a goal to pursue were more likely to report that they hadn't felt they'd had enough spare time.
In their final experiments, Kim and Maglio used manipulation techniques on two additional cohorts to further probe the relationship between elusive goals of happiness and the perception of a shorter available time.
All the studies confirmed the scientists' suspicions: the harder we try to make ourselves happy, the more we feel like we don't have enough time at our disposal to achieve that. And the more we feel that time is scarce, the more unhappy we actually become.
"Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit," Kim and Maglio explain.
'Worry less about happiness as a goal'
This painstaking process, in which we feel that we don't have enough time to work toward the situations that we expect will make us happy, may also be what drives our need for instant gratification.
So is this, I wondered, why I often go out for "retail therapy" while on my lunch breaks under the pretense of having "errands to run?" The answer, it seems, may be "yes."
As Kim and Maglio note, "Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences."
But there is a way out of this vicious cycle: stop trying so hard to find happiness, and instead just really take the time to experience life.
Taking the pressure of an intangible goal off ourselves, the researchers say, may free up the space we need to begin to enjoy ourselves more and do more meaningful activities. They conclude:
"By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness."