Are you pursuing happiness?

Americans want to be happy. But some recent studies have found a paradox: The pursuit of happiness tends to make individual Americans unhappy.

A new study sheds some light on this peculiar American contradiction, suggesting that the relationship between pursuing happiness and decreased well-being, far from being universal, may actually be a product of our individualistic culture.

Brett Ford, of the University of California, Berkeley, teamed up with researchers from around the world to look at the pursuit of happiness in four culturally-distinct locations: the United States, Germany, Russia, and East Asia. College undergraduates living in each location answered questionnaires measuring their psychological and physical well-being, their motivation to pursue happiness, and the extent to which they viewed happiness in social terms—meaning that, for them, happiness was linked to social engagement and helping others.

Ford and colleagues then analyzed the data to find out how these factors interacted with one another in different cultural settings. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that the pursuit of happiness did indeed lead to less well-being for Americans, a finding that replicates prior studies. This wasn’t the case elsewhere in the world.

The impact of culture on the pursuit of happiness seems to be related to the way different cultures view happiness, says Ford. In Russia and East Asia, study participants were shown to strongly equate happiness with social relationships—something Ford says is in line with their more “collectivist,” or group-oriented, cultures. In Germany and the United States this wasn’t the case, probably a result of their more “individualistic” orientation.

This suggests that in collectivist cultures, people seek social solutions for becoming happier, says Ford. Since social ties are well-known predictors of well-being, this may explain why happiness pursuers in Russia and East Asia tend to actually feel happier.

The upshot? Try to focus less intensely on your desire to be happy and just concentrate on building social relationships—hang out with friends and family, seek out social opportunities when possible, and develop practices like compassion and gratitude, which can make you feel more connected to others.


This article is an excerpt from

Greater Good; The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2015 by Jason Marsh, Kirra Dickinson, Kira M. Newman, Jill Suttie, Jeremy Adam Smith | December 29, 2015

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