Is our obsession with happiness making us unhappier?

Positive psychologists generally avoid the word ‘happiness’ for that reason – because it's very misleading

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Published: Wed 10 Apr 2024, 5:11 PM

Last updated: Wed 10 Apr 2024, 5:16 PM

Happiness.

We study it; write reports on it; spend our lives chasing it – but is our obsession with happiness making us more and more unhappy?


“First of all, there is a lot of confusion about what happiness actually is,” explained Dr Louise Lambert, positive psychologist and Director of Happiness Policy and Programming with happinessmatters.org.

“People have this assumption that you must be happy all the time. That would make you manic, and that's a mental health issue, so that’s not normal. We spend our lives looking for a chronic state of happiness that, unless something horrible is happening, yes, you experience positive emotions, but it doesn't mean you're walking around 24/7 with a smile plastered on your face.


“Positive psychologists generally avoid the word ‘happiness’ for that reason – because it's very misleading.”

Dr Lambert instead explains the idea that what the general population defines as happiness, experts explore under several proxies of well-being.

“When we’re determining happiness, what we’re really exploring are markers like life satisfaction – how do you view your life overall? Another marker is subjective wellbeing which explores your experiences in the present moment in time.

“We also use the experience of emotion – how often do you feel positive emotions on any given day? Or negative emotions? – and examine the balance between the two.

“Overall meaning in life is a big one, too. There are hundreds of other markers of what truly define “happiness” instead of walking around grinning ear-to-ear like a clown!”

In the recently released World Happiness Report, the United Arab Emirates ranked 22nd globally. The report’s measurement of subjective well-being relied on three main well-being indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions (described in the report as positive and negative affect). Their happiness rankings were based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives. The evaluation took place between 2021 and 2023, and respondents from various genders and generations were represented.

Among the GCC nations, only Kuwait ranked higher than the UAE — at 13th place.

“The UAE government places a lot of emphasis on the well-being of the population which is great, since we are all striving to improve our situation in life,” Dr Lambert said referencing the 2016 appointment of the Minister of State for Happiness and the launching of the National Programme for Happiness and Well-being.

“But again, the misconception is that happiness is a destination state, a place you can work towards arriving at and staying there forever, which is not the case.”

Dr Lambert explains that there are two forms of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic. Hedonic is about pleasure-seeking: think retail therapy or indulging in a decadent chocolate dessert, or a spa day. She asserts that while we need hedonic pleasures – let’s face it, life is boring without them – it’s happiness in its worst form because those behaviours aren’t sustainable and the fleeting happiness they provide doesn’t last long. Eudaemonic happiness is centred around well-being, meaning-making in life, personal growth, values, relationships, etc. and that’s the sweet spot.

“The problem is, with a daily diet of capitalism and idealism fed to us through social media, for example, the definition, frequency, and expression of both forms of happiness has become this bizarre marker of success today.”

According to Dr Lambert, this pursuit of end-state happiness in whatever form paradoxically makes people more unhappy.

“There's a lot of pressure to be happy. And we have studies showing this: The harder you try to be happy, the more unhappy you will be.

“People are afraid or ashamed to say, ‘I'm having a bad day,’ or ‘I’m struggling.’ So they continue in this pretence of happiness. There’s a belief that if you're not happy, it means you failed in some way and we wear that like a badge of shame. So we end up chasing it in all the wrong ways while being more and more unhappy and hard on ourselves because we’re not getting anywhere.”

Failures, challenges, setbacks, imperfections, not being happy every second of every day is normal. Dr Louise explains that we learn a lot from negative emotions and that’s where our growth as humans comes from. When we experience discomfort we begin the process of self-reflection, asking questions like: What do I need to change? How can I make improvements for myself? And that’s when our lives begin to get better.

Most importantly, this reflection must be undertaken with the mindset that happiness is not linear, and the journey is never-ending.

“Our pursuit of happiness reflects our emotional literacy – you know you’re in a good place when you’re able to turn inwards, cope and express emotions – both positive and negative – in appropriate ways.”

But for many, the determination to know ‘the secret’ outweighs any rational thought.

“I know people won’t believe me when I say there is no key to happiness,” said Dr Louise, “So this is what I do. I look at the times that I've been happiest in my life and look at what it is I'm doing in those moments. I make a list, and then I do more of those things. It’s happiness by design. That list is going to look different for everybody, and I can’t design your best life for you. You need to figure that out, but the great part is that everybody can figure it out.”

We asked residents of the UAE the simple question: Are you happy?

Here’s what they had to say:

“Yes, as I am healthy, living with my loved ones (kids and husband), enjoying my work, able to afford what we need and can talk to my loved ones often back home.”

- Female, 31, marketing management

“I’m not unhappy. I came to the UAE for better opportunities and I’ve made it work here. I feel a lot of guilt that I got to leave Lebanon but others are still struggling and because things are getting worse there. I loved my life back home. But I couldn’t stay. I have to support my parents. I can do that from here, allhamdulilah, and I’m making a new life here. But it’s still hard.”

- Male, 27, finance sector

“It’s ironic because I’ve literally made a life for myself by showing off how happy I am on social media. I’m probably someone a lot of people envy (I’m not being arrogant, I swear but…facts!). I mean I’m generally OK; don’t get me wrong. But I go home to an empty flat most days and that’s like the side I don’t show, right? That’s more of my reality than what I post, but like, no one knows that. It kinda[sic] sucks.”

- Female, 24, influencer

“If I look back at my life, I still don’t know how I’ve ended up here…but I’m not complaining! I’ve had good times. I’ve learned a lot from bad times. I have family, I have health. I’m doing OK.”

- Male, 67, retired

“Happiness isn't straightforward for me. I often feel guilty because I have more than many people do, which makes me think I should be happier. But life keeps getting busier and more complicated, making it hard to keep up. There's this never-ending question: Am I working to live or living to work? It feels like I'm always trying to do well at my job, take care of others, and also look after my own health and happiness. It's a lot to handle, and it can make feeling truly happy quite challenging. Even when I manage to feel grateful for what I have, it doesn't necessarily bring me peace. It all comes at a great cost. I find myself in this limbo—thankful, yet restless and searching for tranquillity. Is this in-between state what happiness is?”

- Female, 33, Human Resources

“How can’t I be happy in a country that has happiness index as one of their government’s priorities? How can’t I be happy in the land of opportunities? How can’t I be happy in a clean, well-structured, and safe country? Happiness is the key of success.”

- Male, 45, events

(Answers edited for length and clarity)

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

We study it, write reports on it, spend our lives chasing it – but is our obsession with happiness making us more and more unhappy?

“First of all, there is a lot of confusion about what happiness actually is,” explained Dr Louise Lambert, positive psychologist and Director of Happiness Policy and Programming with happinessmatters.org.

“People have this assumption that you must be happy all the time. That would make you manic, and that's a mental health issue, so that’s not normal. We spend our lives looking for a chronic state of happiness that, unless something horrible is happening, yes, you experience positive emotions, but it doesn't mean you're walking around 24/7 with a smile plastered on your face.

“Positive psychologists generally avoid the word ‘happiness’ for that reason – because it's very misleading.”

Dr Lambert instead explains the idea that what the general population defines as happiness, experts explore under several proxies of wellbeing.

“When we’re determining happiness, what we’re really exploring are markers like life satisfaction – how do you view your life overall? Another marker is subjective wellbeing which explores your experiences at in the present moment in time.

“We also use the experience of emotion – how often do you feel positive emotions on any given day? Or negative emotions? – and examine the balance between the two.

“Overall meaning in life is a big one, too. There are hundreds of other markers of what truly define “happiness” instead of walking around grinning ear-to-ear like a clown!”

In the recently released World Happiness Report, the United Arab Emirates ranked 22nd globally. The report’s measurement of subjective wellbeing relied on three main wellbeing indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions (described in the report as positive and negative affect). Their happiness rankings were based on life evaluations, as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives. The evaluation took place over the period of time between 2021 to 2023, and respondents from various genders and generations were represented.

Among the GCC Nations, only Kuwait ranked higher than the UAE, at 13th place.

“The UAE government places a lot of emphasis on the wellbeing of the population which is great since we are all striving to improve our situation in life,” Dr Lambert said referencing the 2016 appointment of the Minister of State for Happiness and the launching of the National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing.

“But again, the misconception is that happiness is a destination state, a place you can work towards arriving at and staying there forever, which is not the case”

Dr Lambert explains that there are two forms of happiness: hedonic and eudemonic. Hedonic is about pleasure-seeking: think retail therapy or indulging in a decadent chocolate dessert, or a spa day. She asserts that while we need hedonic pleasures – let’s face it, life is boring without them – it’s happiness in its worst form because those behaviours aren’t sustainable and the fleeting happiness they provide doesn’t last long. Eudemonic happiness is centred around wellbeing, meaning-making in life, personal growth, values, relationships, etc. and that’s the sweet spot.

“The problem is, with a daily diet of capitalism and idealism fed to us through social media, for example, the definition, frequency, and expression of both forms of happiness has become this bizarre marker of success today.”

According to Dr Lambert, this pursuit of end-state happiness in whatever form paradoxically makes people more unhappy.

“There's a lot of pressure to be happy. And we have studies showing this: The harder you try to be happy, the more unhappy you will be.

“People are afraid or ashamed to say, ‘I'm having a bad day,’ or ‘I’m struggling.’ So they continue in this pretence of happiness. There’s a belief that if you're not happy, it means you failed in some way and we wear that like a badge of shame. So we end up chasing it in all the wrong ways while being more and more unhappy and hard on ourselves because we’re not getting anywhere.”

Failures, challenges, setbacks, imperfections, not being happy every second of every day is normal. Dr Louise explains that we learn a lot from negative emotions and that’s where our growth as humans comes from. When we experience discomfort we begin the process of self-reflection, asking questions like: What do I need to change? How can I make improvements for myself? And that’s when our lives begin to get better.

Most importantly, this reflection must be undertaken with the mindset that happiness is not linear, and the journey is never-ending.

“Our pursuit of happiness reflects our emotional literacy – you know you’re in a good place when you’re able to turn inwards, cope and express emotions – both positive and negative – in appropriate ways.”

But for many, the determination to know ‘the secret’ outweighs any rational thought.

“I know people won’t believe me when I say there is no key to happiness,” said Dr Louise, “So this is what I do. I look at the times that I've been happiest in my life and look at what it is I'm doing in those moments. I make a list, and then I do more of those things. It’s happiness by design. That list is going to look different for everybody, and I can’t design your best life for you. You need to figure that out, but the great part is that everybody can figure it out.”

We asked residents of the UAE the simple question: Are you happy?

Here’s what they had to say:

“Yes, as I am healthy, living with my loved ones (kids and husband), enjoying my work, able to afford what we need and can talk to my loved ones often back home.”

- Female, 31, marketing management

“I’m not unhappy. I came to the UAE for better opportunities and I’ve made it work here. I feel a lot of guilt that I got to leave Lebanon but others are still struggling and because things are getting worse there. I loved my life back home. But I couldn’t stay. I have to support my parents. I can do that from here, allhamdulilah, and I’m making a new life here. But it’s still hard.”

- Male, 27, finance sector

“It’s ironic because I’ve literally made a life for myself by showing off how happy I am on social media. I’m probably someone a lot of people envy (I’m not being arrogant, I swear but…facts!). I mean I’m generally OK, don’t get me wrong. But I go home to an empty flat most days and that’s like the side I don’t show, right? That’s more of my reality than what I post, but like, no one knows that. It kinda[sic] sucks.”

- Female, 24, influencer

“If I look back at my life, I still don’t know how I’ve ended up here…but I’m not complaining! I’ve had good times. I’ve learned a lot from bad times. I have family, I have health. I’m doing OK.”

- Male, 67, retired

“Happiness isn't straightforward for me. I often feel guilty because I have more than many people do, which makes me think I should be happier. But life keeps getting busier and more complicated, making it hard to keep up. There's this never-ending question: am I working to live or living to work? It feels like I'm always trying to do well at my job, take care of others, and also look after my own health and happiness. It's a lot to handle, and it can make feeling truly happy quite challenging. Even when I manage to feel grateful for what I have, it doesn't necessarily bring me peace. It all comes at a great cost. I find myself in this limbo—thankful, yet restless and searching for tranquillity. Is this in-between state what happiness is?”

- Female, 33, Human Resources

“How can’t I be happy in a country that has happiness index as one of their government’s priorities? How can’t I be happy in the land of opportunities? How can’t I be happy in a clean, well-structured, and safe country? Happiness is the key of success.”

- Male, 45, events

(Answers edited for length and clarity)


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