“Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
A key question for people hoping to improve their well-being is whether it is counter-productive to focus too hard on the end goal of being happier. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill have proposed that it is – he wrote that happiness comes to those who “have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” A pertinent study published in 2003 by Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues (pdf) supported this idea: participants who listened to music with the intention of feeling happier actually ended up feeling less happy than others who merely listened to the music with no happiness goal.
But now a new study has come along which purports to show that trying deliberately to be happier is beneficial after all. Yuna Ferguson and Kennon Sheldon criticise the Schooler study on the basis that the music used – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – is not conducive to happiness, and that’s why it interfered with deliberate attempts to feel happier.
Ferguson and Sheldon had 167 participants spend 12 minutes listening either to Rite of Spring or an upbeat section from Rodeo by Copland. Crucially, half the participants were instructed to relax and observe their natural reactions to the music. “It is important that you do not try to consciously improve your mood,” they were told. The other participants received the opposite instructions – “really focus on improving your mood”.
Afterwards, two measures of mood were taken – one based on six words like “joyful”; the other a continuous measure of positive feelings. The participants who’d listened to the cheery music, and simultaneously tried to improve their mood, reported feeling in a more positive mood than the participants who’d merely listened to the upbeat music, and the participants who’d listened to the down-beat music, whether they strived to feel happier or not. This was despite the fact that the groups did not differ in how much they’d enjoyed the activity, or how “pressured” they’d felt to complete it.
A second study was similar, but this time 68 participants visited a psych lab five times over two weeks to spend 15 minutes each time listening to music they’d chosen from a pre-selected list covering various genres from folk to hip-hop. Again, half the participants were instructed to focus on the music and not their own happiness (they were told that doing so could backfire); the other half were told to think a lot about their happiness and to try to feel happier (they were told that doing so is beneficial).
At the end of the two weeks, the group who’d deliberately tried to feel happier showed an improvement in their happiness levels compared with baseline; in contrast, the participants who’d merely focused on the music did not enjoy this benefit. This was despite both groups believing to the same degree that the intervention would make them happier, and both groups enjoying their music the same amount.
“The results suggest that without trying, individuals may not experience higher positive changes in their well-being,” Ferguson and Sheldon concluded. “Thus practitioners and individuals interested in happiness interventions might consider the motivational mindset as an important facet of improving well-being.”
Sceptical readers may not be so easily persuaded. Because there was no attempt to measure the participants’ thought-processes, it’s difficult to know how they interpreted and acted on the two forms of instruction. In the second study in particular, even though they were told there was no need, how do we know the participants didn’t go to lengths outside of the lab to boost their happiness? From a statistical point of view, the first study lacks any measure of change in mood.
The second study is also complicated by the music-focus group starting out with, and ending up with, a slightly higher average happiness score than the happiness-focus group (albeit these differences were not statistically significant) – see graph. This raises the possibility of a ceiling effect for the music-focus group – perhaps they were already too happy for the intervention to make a difference.
Ferguson, Y., and Sheldon, K. (2013). Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8 (1), 23-33 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2012.747000