Story at a glance

  • Desperately seeking happiness is not the best way to find it, especially if you live in the U.S. or the U.K., according to new research.
  • The study of university students in the U.K. found those who placed a lot of value on happiness were more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.
  • A 2015 study of Russian and East Asian people arrived at the opposite finding — valuing happiness was associated with greater well-being — suggesting that Westerners may be looking for happiness in the wrong places.

Pining after happiness can result in depression, for Westerners at least, according to recent research.

The study found students in the United Kingdom who reported placing high value on happiness tended to show more signs of depression.  

“When you value happiness too much you become too attentive to your emotions and you also kind of struggle with regulating them in a good way,” Julia Vogt, co-author of the paper, told the Guardian.

Prior research has found a similar link between valuing happiness and depression in the United States, but this latest study suggests the association holds in the U.K. as well. 

The study asked 151 students to complete a series of online quizzes designed to assess their attitudes, including how much they valued happiness, how affected they were by their emotions, how easily they could put aside emotions as well as their symptoms.

Researchers found the students for whom happiness was a coveted goal had more symptoms of depression. A second round of the study queried an additional 299 people and arrived at similar findings. 

The researchers say the link between valuing happiness and depression was related to the participant’s tendency to become preoccupied by their emotions, difficulty savoring positive events and struggling to reframe thoughts or experiences, which was itself associated with depressed symptoms. 

Some of these qualities were themselves linked to coping strategies such as emotional suppression that Vogt told the Guardian are not effective. “Suppression is not [considered a] successful emotional regulation strategy because when you try not to think of something you think [about it] all the time.” 

The study can’t prove valuing happiness causes symptoms of depression on its own. But, paradoxically, a similar study of Russian and East Asian people that reported the opposite finding — that valuing happiness was associated with greater wellbeing — may lend support to the idea that it’s valuing happiness that causes symptoms of depression in Westerners. 

“If it would be the other way around, if depression would cause higher valuing of happiness, I think then the relationship should be found in all countries,” Vogt told the Guardian.

She said that this suggests culture could be a big determining factor and cited forthcoming research that suggests Westerners may be looking for happiness in the wrong places — tending to focus their pursuit on achievements such as a promotion. In East Asia, the focus is instead on helping others or spending time with loved ones. 

“I think most people know what makes them happy when they think about it,” Vogt said, “and it is probably not the promotion or the big things, it is probably small things.”

Published on Jan 22, 2020