Positive psychology and well-being have fast become popular topics, both within the scientific community and among the general public. Indeed, parallel to understanding how the human brain and mind function, psychology provides us with one of, if not the most powerful tool for improving our day-to-day lives and feeling happier in general.
That is—if you believe it’s possible. A group of researchers from Seoul National University and Korea University have found evidence that “essentializing” happiness—i.e., attributing one’s happiness to immutable factors like genetics—renders individuals less likely to adopt behaviors intended to (and in many cases, proven to) increase happiness.
Competing theories, like set point theory, suggest that happiness is determined by biological factors that cannot be changed in any significant way. However, a growing body of research, including the present study, is challenging this conception.
Through a series of studies, the researchers designed (Study 1) and validated (Study 2) a construct for measuring essentialist beliefs about happiness, and then used this construct (Study 3) to determine whether essentialist beliefs would predict one’s motivation to boost happiness.
Results from the 401 participants of Study Three enabled the researchers to confirm their hypothesis that those who gave greater weight to the biological basis and immutability of happiness were less likely to engage in happiness-increasing activities. On the other hand, those who demonstrated what the authors call ‘effort constructivism’ were more likely to engage in them.
A fourth study manipulated essentialist beliefs about happiness to determine the nature of the relationship. 452 participants were primed with a mock scientific article either validating, refuting, or unrelated to (control group) the mutability of happiness.
The results further nuance the relationship between perception of mutability and motivation to increase happiness. It provided evidence for a causal relationship, as those who were temporarily primed with essentialist beliefs were less likely to want to engage in happiness-increasing activities.
Additionally, the researchers were able to demonstrate that those who had less interest in performing activities to increase their happiness weren’t simply uninterested in being happy or didn’t value happiness less—they simply didn’t think it would be a fruitful endeavor. Interestingly, however, those who believed in the capacity to increase their happiness weren’t significantly happier than those who did not.
Future research will need to further explore this relation. The authors, for example, highlight the need to determine the underlying mechanisms of essentialist beliefs and any mediators connecting them to actual behavior.
It has been argued by psychologists and philosophers alike that happiness and well-being should be the ultimate goal of the pursuit of science, as well as the manner in which we live our lives. Research like the present study, “Essentializing happiness reduces one’s motivation to be happier”, will enable us to better understand how our own beliefs about happiness affect our well-being and willingness or motivation to take the matter in hand.