Depression and Happiness Pursuit: A Surprising Link

Recent studies show that there is a surprising link between depression and happiness pursuit – but how can chasing happiness lead to feelings of depression?

Nobody wants to feel depressed. People want to feel happy. So it makes sense to pursue objects, relationships, and goals that you think will make you happy. Pursuing happiness is so important in American culture that it’s enshrined in one of the country’s foundational documents as one of three inalienable rights inherent to all humans, right next to life and liberty.

So, in a culture that prioritizes the pursuit of happiness, why are so many people so sad?

  • Why is major depressive disorder the leading cause of disability for Americans between the ages of 15 and 44?
  • Why is the suicide rate in the United States at its highest point since World War II?

Recent studies suggest that there may be a link between pursuing happiness and symptoms of depression.

Does Seeking Happiness Make You Sad?

Research done in both the US and the UK suggest that there is a negative relationship between valuing happiness and experiencing symptoms of depression. That is the more value that you place on feeling happy, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of depression.

Interestingly, research also seems to suggest that this relationship is more pronounced in English-speaking Western cultures than it is in other parts of the world. Similar studies show positive associations between valuing happiness and feelings of well-being in Russian and East Asian cultures. In addition, a UK study shows that the negative relationship between the pursuit of happiness and depression was much more pronounced among UK participants.

It was less prevalent among participants of other nationalities or those who held dual citizenship. That data seems to suggest that if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, it’s much more likely that your pursuit of happiness is leading to the opposite of happiness.

Why Would Pursuing Happiness Lead to Depression?

Of course, nobody gets everything that they want. But you could assume that people who prioritize their own happiness would be happy more often than not. So why are people who prize happiness ending up depressed instead? There are several theories.

It may be that while happiness is prioritized, people still tend to focus more heavily on negative emotional events than positive ones. It may have to do with emotional regulation strategies – perhaps the strategies that English-speaking Westerners use to regulate their emotions are poorly suited to the environment and culture. Or perhaps it has to do with what people think will bring them happiness. In US culture, happiness is widely presumed to come from individual achievements. Other cultures place more of a focus on universal goals.

It also seems likely that the negative association between the pursuit of happiness and symptoms of depression has to do with how highly happiness is prioritized in the first place. It’s important to understand that happiness is just one possible emotion out of many. It’s normal for humans to feel happiness, but it’s also normal to feel things like

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Fear
  • Anger

When you try to suppress or ignore those more unpleasant emotions, they don’t get dealt with or processed properly, and that can result in depression. The idea that de-prioritizing happiness may help you avoid depression may sound counter-intuitive. However, if you can accept that happiness is not the only emotion that you should be feeling and rank it more equally with your other emotions, you may actually be less likely to experience symptoms of depression.

Embracing Negative Emotions

If pursuing happiness above all else can lead to depression, can embracing your more negative emotions have a positive impact? It’s possible. People tend to think of emotions like anger or sadness as “bad” emotions. While they’re “negative emotions”, they’re not actually bad, per se.

Your emotions are just signs that something has happened that you need to pay attention to. Think of negative emotions the way you think of physical pain – it hurts when you burn yourself on the stove, but that pain is your body letting you know that the heat of the stove is dangerous, and forcing you to pay attention to it. If you pay attention to the pain and what caused it, you’ll realize that you need to take care not to put your hand in that spot without looking the next time. Negative emotions are similar – you can use them to learn from an event and to motivate you to change the way you do things in order to provoke fewer unpleasant emotions the next time.

Embracing your negative emotions isn’t about giving in to them. Allowing negative emotions to rule you can be very destructive. For example, uncontrolled anger can damage and even irreparably destroy relationships. However, while you may not want to give in to anger, it also doesn’t help to deny that you’re feeling it or attempt to prevent yourself from ever feeling it. Instead, you want to be able to acknowledge the feeling and understand why you’re feeling it, then release the feeling.

Breaking the Link Between Depression and Happiness Pursuit

It can help to remember that positive emotions can have negative consequences as well. Optimism is great, but if it’s entirely unchecked and allowed to take over, it can lead to anything from unrealistic expectations to dangerously risky behavior. So even though it’s a positive feeling, you need to:

  1. Examine it
  2. Discover your reasons for feeling it
  3. Not allow it to override other emotions or critical thinking skills, just as you must do with negative emotions

Begin to think of all emotions as signals from life events or circumstances that are neither good nor bad. You must try to understand and realize these emotions rather than avoid them. If you can do this, you’ll be better able to embrace your negative emotions and avoid prioritizing happiness above all other emotions. And that can have a positive impact on your life.

Learning to manage and accept your emotions takes time and patience. If you’re struggling with handling negative emotions or experiencing symptoms of depression, you may benefit from depression treatment, therapy, or counseling.