“Is Happiness Overrated?” asks Shirley Wang in a recent Wall Street Journal article, surveying the results of a recent study at the University of Wisconsin. The findings revolve mainly around the distinction between hedonic  and eudaimonic well-being, aka, short-term vs. long-term happiness, pleasure vs fulfillment, etc. Of particular interest to us is that, while not without some overlap, the two categories do seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive. In other words, what we think will make us happy and what actually makes us happy are often two different things. Moreover, the overt pursuit of happiness (“I must be happy”) – the Law of happiness, if you will – tends to preclude its attainment. Lasting personal happiness tends to increase, instead, to the extent that someone is focused on (serving) others, rather than themselves. Which sadly doesn’t appear to be something that can be “gamed.” Some of this is captain-obvious territory for those acquainted with the New Testament, but that doesn’t make it any less amusing to hear it stated in such scientific language:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good… Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings [“hedonic well-being”]—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness… In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.

The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.

“Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness,” says Carol Ryff, a professor and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. [ed. note: you don’t say!]

The two types of well-being [hedonic and eudaimonic] aren’t necessarily at odds, and there is overlap. Striving to live a meaningful life or to do good work should bring about feelings of happiness, of course. But people who primarily seek extrinsic rewards, such as money or status, often aren’t as happy, says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.

Simply engaging in activities that are likely to promote eudaimonic well-being, such as helping others, doesn’t seem to yield a psychological benefit if people feel pressured to do them, according to a study Dr. Ryan and a colleague published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “When people say, ‘In the long-run, this will get me some reward,’ that person doesn’t get as much benefit,” he says.

…there is such a thing as too much focus on happiness. Ruminating too much about oneself can become a vicious cycle. Fixating on being happy “in itself can become a psychological burden,” Dr. Ryff says.