The pursuit of happiness may cause depression

Valuing happiness may leave people less able to control their emotions (Getty)
Valuing happiness may leave people less able to control their emotions (Getty)

The pursuit of happiness may cause depression, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of Reading looked at the emotional wellbeing of 450 people.

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They found those who valued happiness were less able to control their feelings and savour positive experiences, triggering depression.

Valuing happiness may leave people overly vigilant about the events in their life, including the negative ones, the scientists warn.

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Happiness is “important for function and wellbeing”, with most considering it a life goal, the scientists wrote in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Valuing positive emotions has been linked to greater life satisfaction, however, other studies associated it with loneliness, bipolar disorder and having a weak social circle.

In the US, the pursuit of happiness has been linked to poor wellbeing, while the reverse was found to be true in Russian and east Asian studies.

To learn more, the scientists first had 151 students of a British university complete a happiness questionnaire.

The participants were asked whether they agreed with statements like “I would like to be happier than I generally am”, “I control my emotions by changing the way I think about the situation I’m in” and “I am so sad or unhappy I cannot stand it”.

Results suggest valuing happiness is significantly linked to depressive symptoms.

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Paying too much attention to your emotions may distract people from the task at hand. This could prevent them achieving their goals, triggering depression.

“We observed the inability of participants to focus attention while feeling a range of emotions was a major factor in this idea of not being able to savour a positive experience,” study author Dr Julia Vogt said.

Striving for happiness may also cause people to avoid situations that are difficult at the time but have long-term benefits.

For example, not studying for an exam because it is too stressful only to then be unprepared on the day.

In the second experiment, the scientists again looked at university students in Britain, this time noting their nationality.

Out of the 299 participants, almost three quarters (73.2%) were British.

They were presented with the same statements as before, as well as “I feel a joy of anticipation when I think about upcoming good things” and “I enjoy looking back on happy times from my past”.

Once again, valuing happiness was linked to depressive symptoms.

This was most pronounced in the British participants, compared to those who were non-British or had dual nationality.

“This supports the assumption associations between valuing happiness and low wellbeing are culturally bound,” the scientists wrote.

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Western cultures may value “high-arousal positive emotions”, the scientists wrote. When these are not met, it could trigger depression, they added.

Alternatively, those in the west may place more emphasis on personal achievements, leading to reduced social connections.

“The relationship between valuing happiness and depressive symptoms was seen far more significantly in UK participants than those from other nationalities or dual citizens,” Dr Vogt said.

“We don't go so far as to test what those differences are, but there seems to be a significant divide between English-speaking western cultures and other cultures when it comes to how our internal value of experiencing happiness shapes our experiences and mood.”

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