Chasing happiness won’t make you happy. Do this instead

Are you constantly striving for happiness? Experts say you may be happier if you give up the chase.

The Dalai Lama says the purpose of life is to be happy.

But what if the pursuit of happiness is the very thing that makes us unhappy?

The problem with chasing happiness

Society places a lot of emphasis on happiness, yet research tells us chasing happiness is not the key to a fulfilling life – in fact, it’s often counterproductive.

An early study from the American Psychological Association shows people who actively seek out happiness are often less happy.

What’s more, 2019 research found they’re more likely to suffer from depression.

What is the ‘happiness paradox’?

This strange paradox presents happiness as a Sisyphean task: the more you want it, the more you work for it, the less likely you are to achieve it.

Social psychologist and researcher Professor Brock Bastian explains the “happiness paradox” in terms of human goal pursuit.

“If my goal is to be happy, as I’m working towards that goal, I might be assessing how well I’m doing along the way; and if I realise I’m not as happy as I’d like to be, there’s a disappointment associated with that realisation,” Prof Bastian, of the University of Melbourne, says.

“So the very nature of trying to pursue happiness as a goal can push it further away while actually reducing our happiness because we’re constantly assessing, ‘Am I happy enough yet?’.”

So, what really makes us happy?

If seeking happiness leaves us wanting, what really makes us happy?


Psychologist and University of Queensland senior lecturer Dr James Kirby suggests practising compassion may be a more fulfilling way to feel content in life.

“When we engage in compassionate acts towards others, we tend to feel a greater sense of meaning, wellbeing and connectedness,” Dr Kirby says.

He explains it can be as simple as doing something kind for someone.

“Doing kind acts for people – like gestures or favours – can generate those positive effects,” Dr Kirby says.

“Research tells us that those who are higher in compassion tend to have better physiological health and better mental health.”


Prof Bastian says feeling connected to others is one of the most powerful contributors to happiness and wellbeing.

He recommends finding ways to connect with people on a meaningful level that isn’t about our immediate happiness, but theirs.

“We know that volunteering our time is a very important contributor to our wellbeing, to feel we have a goal that’s outside of ourselves, which is really important in terms of creating social connection, meaning and purpose.”


“Gratitude is a wonderful ‘hack’ to happiness,” Dr Kirby says.

And it doesn’t have to be jotting down all the things in life you’re grateful for each morning.

Dr Kirby says, “simply recognising what you have that enables you to do the things you enjoy,” is enough.

Prof Bastian explains gratitude as the opposite of social comparison.

“As humans, we’re often focused on upward social comparison because we’re aspirational creatures,” Prof Bastian says.

“But, of course, that upward comparison can make us feel bad for not having all the things we’d like to have, to forget what we do have.”

Therefore, practising gratitude is a good way to help gain perspective, to realign our focus from “wants” to “haves”.

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.