Psychology Today

The paradox of happiness: new research reveals a surprising truth: the tendency to feel unhappy may lurk in your genes, but happiness is something you can create for yourself.

the paradox of happiness

New research reveals a surprising truth: The tendency to feel unhappy may lurk in your genes, but happiness is something that you can create for yourself. It's plain common sense--the more happiness you feel, the less unhappiness you are bound to experience. It's plain common sense, but it's not true. Recent research reveals that happiness and unhappiness are not really flip sides of the same emotion. They are two distinct feelings that, coexisting, rise and fall independently.

"You'd think that the higher a person's level of unhappiness, the lower their level of happiness and vice versa," says Edward Diener, a University of Illinois professor of psychology who has done much of the new work on positive and negative emotions. But when Diener and other researchers measure people's average levels of happiness and unhappiness, they often find little relationship between the two.

The recognition that feelings of happiness and unhappiness can coexist much like love and hate in a close relationship may offer valuable clues on how to lead a happier life. It suggests, for example, that changing or avoiding things that make you miserable may well make you less miserable but probably won't make you any happier. That advice is backed up by an extraordinary series of studies which indicate that a genetic predisposition for unhappiness may run in certain families. Conversely, researchers have found, happiness doesn't appear to be anyone's heritage. The capacity for joy is a talent you develop largely for yourself.

Considering what a motivating force the quest for happiness is--William James said it's the secret motive that drives everyone--it's surprising how long psychologists have waited to study what makes people happy or sad. Psychological Abstracts International, for example, didn't even index the subject of happiness until 1973. …

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