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Science Tells You How to Stop Chasing Happiness to Be Happy

Do you eat or strive to lose weight in order to be “happy”? Do you go after happiness as if it’s a prize and once you’ve gotten your hands around it, it will be yours forever? “Why chasing happiness may be making you miserable” by Mandy Oaklander (Time, 10/12/15, p. 28) dispels myths about what will make you happy and offers advice on true happiness. It also explains why non-hunger food seeking just doesn’t cut it.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General measured college students’ drive for happiness against their real levels of well-being. They discovered that, for Americans, at least, “desperately wanting to be happy is linked with lower psychological health,” according to study author Brett Ford at the University of California, Berkeley. In “collectivist societies” like Japan, “happiness is seen as a social endeavor: spending time with friends, caring for parents, etc.” Ford maintains that this kind of connectivity is what fosters well-being. Americans, however, see the pursuit of happiness as being an individual endeavor: “chasing the best career, buying stuff and expecting all of that to lead to happiness,” setting us up “for a lifetime of letdowns.”

Remember that “happy” is an emotion, not an ongoing state of being. Happiness comes and happiness goes. It is not a permanent condition. According to scientific studies, five ways to feel happier are by: 1) engaging in deliberate activity that brings about positive emotions—anything from reading to gardening to surfing to taking belly dancing lessons; 2) recognizing that time is limited, shifting your perspective from exciting happiness to serene happiness; 3) being present rather than thinking about doing something well or the right way; 4) keeping expectations low and not focusing on big events to make you happy (say, an expensive vacation or a big party); and 5) “savoring great moments” by “absorbing yourself in a positive experience.”

Most dysregulated eaters have difficulty “savoring” anything because they’re too often ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. They’re self-conscious and #3 above describes them to a T. But you can’t worry and savor at the same time. To savor, whether food or an activity, it’s imperative to clear your mind, perk up your senses, and immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing. If you’re listening to music, focus on what you’re hearing exclusively. Whether you’re eating a sardine sandwich or crème brûlée, attend to what you’re tasting. Turn off your judgments and look to make each moment the best it can be. Stop search for perfection. And understand that you can’t wait for happiness to come to you. You need to go out and experience it.