Who’s happy? I don’t know anybody off the top of my head. If there were a tried-and-true path to contentment, we’d all hop on it (or we’d at least like to think so). But perhaps all this worrying about how to acheive happiness is where we go wrong. Or so posits a new study.
A new paper titled “Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness” published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review suggests that actively making an effort to be happy leads people to feel like time is slipping through their fingers — and this makes them feel blue. Irony!
Researchers Aekyong Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronoto, Scarborough, tested subjects in two different scenarios: actively seeking happiness, or reflecting on what has already made them happy.
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They had one group make a list of things that could hypothetically make them happy, and another, make a list of things that had already brought them happiness. Another group was asked to try to feel happy while watching a “dull movie about building bridges” — ostensibly, a neutral/boring activity that doesn’t exactly yield a joyous mood. While a fourth group got to watch a “slapstick comedy” without being asked to contemplate their emotions.
After these exercises, they asked the participants to comment on how much free time they felt like they had, in general. The first two groups that were actively seeking happiness said that they felt like time was more scarce, compared to the latter groups.
Don’t these results illustrate the difference between being in the moment, versus analyzing the moment? If you’re watching a boring movie and someone asks you to brainstorm your future happiness, wouldn’t that make you feel anxious and as though you were wasting your life? Whereas, if you’re asked to write down all the things that you appreciate, while being mindlessly entertained by a comedy — sure, you’re more likely to be in a better mood.
“We have theorized that seeking happiness changes how people think about time because the nature of pursuing happiness uniquely breeds an expectation of future demands on one’s time,” they wrote in the paper.
The researchers suggest that keeping a gratitude journal is a good mental health strategy, arguing that it gives people time to appreciate their happiness — which might be greater than they think — as opposed to worrying about their future emotional state. Yes! We'll happily step off the hamster wheel, now.