Happiness hunters should play the long game

20-Mar-2018

Associate Professor in Psychology Simon Moss incorporates magic shows into his lectures at Charles Darwin University because the challenge makes him happy. Photo: Julianne Osborne

Associate Professor in Psychology Simon Moss incorporates magic shows into his lectures at Charles Darwin University because the challenge makes him happy. Photo: Julianne Osborne


The pursuit of happiness often inhibits the experience of it, according to a Charles Darwin University psychology researcher.

A lucrative lifestyle industry revolves around the average person’s quest to be happy, marketing attractively packaged exercise trends and wellness products, but studies reveal a paradox: people who are motivated to seek happiness are less likely to find it.

As the world marks International Day of Happiness today, Associate Professor in Psychology Simon Moss said people often defined happiness as something they felt in a moment, rather than taking a holistic approach to their wellbeing.

“As psychologists, we obsess with this notion of distinguishing between hedonic happiness – instant gratification – and eudaimonic happiness, which regards a meaningful life achieved through purpose, growth and spirituality,” he said.

Dr Moss, who enjoys the challenge of incorporating magic shows into his lectures, said ambivalence, rather than happiness itself, was the most productive state of being when looking to achieve growth and fulfilment.

“We grow the most when we have mixed feelings,” he said.

“Deliberately engaging in an activity that makes you feel simultaneously nervous and excited, or reflecting on something that makes you feel sad but gives you a sense of hope, can be productive. 

“There are a number of possible explanations for this; one is that positive and negative emotions activate different parts of the brain that work well together.”

Dr Moss said strategies often employed to improve happiness could be undermined because:

  • Striving to improve mood tends to deteriorate wellbeing as people become even more sensitive to problems
  • Self-help strategies or activities commonly recommended to improve happiness are often simplified to the point of being misleading
  • People do not always feel confident to follow their own intuition 
  • Strategies that are effective for some people are detrimental to others – eg. positive self-affirmations can be harmful to someone whose self-worth is already low.