Does the pursuit of happiness actually make you happy?

It’s late January, and for most of Canada, that means cold, clouds, rain, snow and darkness. It’s depressing – and many people are looking to feel better, and happier.

Lela McMurray, who works at Book Warehouse in Vancouver, said that in January, more of her customers are looking for books on how to be happy. “They definitely become much more popular after the new year because people are more open to trying new things, I think, because it gets a bit depressing — it starts raining.”


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According to statistics on the Canadian publishing industry from BookNet Canada, sales of self-help books focused on happiness grew by 27 per cent just between 2016 and 2017 alone.

Registered psychologist Dr. Carla Fry, who often gives talks on various topics related to mental health, said that in the last few years, she’s been getting more requests to talk about being happy. “In the last year-and-a-half, two years, the No. 1 requested talk is how to be happy, how to stay happy, how to get happy.”

The problem with chasing happiness though, is that it can’t be caught.

“The pursuit of happiness is absolutely contributing to people being less happy,” she said.

“Because what we’re always doing is, ‘Am I happy enough? Am I happy enough now? Am I happy enough now?’”

This approach tends to highlight the negative, where we don’t measure up, she said, rather than having us focus on the positive aspects of our lives.

“There is a serious problem in the way the happiness literature has been presented to the public,” said Dr. Randy Paterson, a psychologist and author of How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. “It has set many people on the quest for lasting, permanent, 24-hour joy.”

“This, as far as we can tell, is not something humans are wired to experience. We can have more happiness, yes, and less misery.”

“But permanent joy is not a setting that we can achieve. Aiming for it – and inevitably failing – can be a source of distress and disappointment.”

While it’s not unreasonable to want to make your life better and have more good experiences than bad, going for constant joy is too high a bar, he said. A better measure is simply satisfaction, or living your life in accordance with your personal beliefs and values.

“The quest for happiness can be misguided because it targets the wrong thing: an emotion,” he said. “Happiness is more of a result of doing something else. We engage with friends, and then experience happiness. We complete a home renovation project and then feel contentment and pride in our work.”

Fry urges people not to think of happiness and sadness as polar opposites. “In order to be sustainably happy, or happy enough, we need to experience, we need to experience anxiety, we need to experience frustration,” she said.

“Partly that’s because then we can reflect upon the good times, but also when we don’t experience all of the emotions, we’re not happy and healthy from a psychological perspective.”

John Helliwell, a professor emeritus at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research at UBC, has spent much of his career examining happiness and well-being. What keeps coming up in his research is that finding happiness is not something you can do selfishly.

“Social connections is No. 1. But it’s not just any old social connections. The ones that are gold-plated in happiness terms are the ones where you’re connecting with other people for good purpose. Above all, it means helping other people.”

People who are given rewards for being generous to others aren’t as happy as people who do it for nothing, he said. So, he thinks that those who achieve happiness for themselves actually question their own motives – making them less happy.

People are also really bad at knowing what will make them happy, Paterson said. A good way to improve your guesses is to look at your past – what things have brought you the greatest happiness or contentment?

“The answers are often surprising: Visiting a sick friend in hospital, working with or donating to a charity, casual nights in with friends rather than expensive nights out at high-end restaurants.”

Helliwell said he often urges people to reach out to others. “I’m always happy to provide that push because I know it’s good for them and it’s good for the people they reach out to.”

“I challenge people — start a conversation on your next bus ride. Start a conversation on your next elevator ride.”

By following your values, your vision of the future, and your past experiences, said Paterson, “it is quite likely that not only you, but also the people around you, will be happier.”

— With files from Melanie de Klerk, Global News

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