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Can the Pursuit of Happiness Actually Make You Unhappy?


The right to pursue happiness is written into our DNA. Our Founding Fathers believed it was so important that they enshrined “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.

But pursuing happiness takes time, which is the focus of a new study by researchers at Rutgers University and the University of Toronto.

Making Happiness a Goal Can Change the Way We Think About Time

The findings published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (March 2018) showed that when people make happiness a goal, they often feel they don’t have enough time available in the present moment, which makes them unhappy.

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Just as importantly, say the researchers, if we fail to bridge the gap between how we feel and how we want to feel this can make us even more unhappy, causing us to put more time into our efforts. As the spiral continues, more and more of the present moment time is used up trying to achieve future happiness. Wanting to be happy also causes us to monitor positive and negative thoughts and awareness of the latter, which can make people unhappy.

The researchers surmise that unlike a goal, such as writing five pages of a novel each day, chasing happiness is often never fully realized. Even if a writer produces three pages a day, researchers reason that she knows that she has made progress, with no negative outcomes. Seeking happiness is trickier since there is no way to quantify if a person is closer to the goal of being happy or as happy as they can possibly be. People also have different perceptions about happiness, which can influence how they feel about the time spent pursuing it.

Researchers Uncover Relationship Between Pursuit of Happiness and Perception of Time

Researchers conducted four studies to examine the relationship between the pursuit of happiness and the way we feel about the time we have available. The first group of participants in each study were asked to make happiness a goal by creating a list of things that would help them feel more positive and encouraged themselves to feel upbeat while watching a not-very-interesting movie about bridge building. The second group was treated as if they had already achieved their goal to be happy, by listing items showing that they were and watching a slapstick comedy. Researchers concluded that participants who had in some way, achieved their goal of being happy or happier had less feelings of time scarcity.

The results of these studies also resonate with previous research showing that the pursuit of happiness can indeed make some individuals unhappy. But researchers say this isn’t inevitable. Practices like stopping to smell the roses — being mindful in the present moment — or keeping a gratitude journal for example, helps us appreciate that happiness has been attained and reinforces the idea that the time spent was worthwhile.

Researchers explain it this way, “Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit.” If not, the pursuit can undermine happiness and well-being. “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.” Awareness is key. “Given the influence that time availability has on people’s decision-making and well-being, it remains essential to understand when, why, and how they perceive and use their time differently in their pursuit of happiness and other goals.”


Kim, A. & Maglio, S.J. (2018). Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review DOI: 10.3758/s13423-018-1436-7

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