Doing This One Thing Is Making You Miserable, Science Says

We all want to be happy, that’s a given. We spend much of our lives chasing the things that we think will give us that elusive sense of overall contentedness with our existence, whether that’s the dream job, the dream guy, a giant house, a fancy car… the list goes on and on. While it makes sense that we spend our years on earth desperately trying to make the most of them, that could be the very reason we’re failing at finding happiness.

A new study, published this month in the journal Emotion, found that our obsession with finding happiness is actually making us miserable since it means we’re more likely to linger over our past failures and shortcomings, giving them more weight than they deserve and causing us unnecessary anxiety and stress.

As University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences social psychologist and study co-author Brock Bastian explained to TIME, “Happiness is a good thing, but setting it up as something to be achieved tends to fail. Our work shows that it changes how people respond to their negative emotions and experiences, leading them to feel worse about these and to ruminate on them more.”

This conclusion was reached following two experiments, one in which students were asked to solve 35 anagrams within three minutes, not knowing that 15 of them couldn’t actually be solved. The participants were split into three separate rooms to complete the task, two of which were “happiness-themed” and one which was more neutral. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those in the more upbeat rooms were more likely to get stuck on their failures than those in the neutral room, proving that forced positivity isn’t always a good thing.

The second experiment was simply a poll of 200 American adults to gauge their opinions on negative feelings and how they believe society reacts to them. In the end, the participants who thought they were looked down upon for feeling things like depression or anxiety were much more likely to be unhappy with their lives overall because of their fixation on those negative emotions.

The takeaway? We need to stop trying so hard to be happy. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, and the sooner we learn to loosen up and enjoy the ride, the closer we’ll get to actually feeling good about the lives we lead.

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