The happiness challenge, a trendy online project that asks people to be happy for 100 days in a row, could backfire for some, Canadian psychology experts say.
The happiness challenge is based on the premise that happiness is a choice. It asks participants to submit a photo every day of what made them happy, without trying to make others jealous.
Julie Nadeau, a mother of three in Ottawa, is into her second week of the challenge. She thought it was an opportunity to slow down and relish the moment.
"I just was able to find a moment where there was silence, a golden minute, something I probably would have missed if I hadn't been on this challenge," Nadeau recalled of an otherwise difficult day at home with a grumpy and sick child.
Taking the time to savour a moment and appreciate what you have to be thankful for while recognizing life isn’t "all lollipops and rainbows" works in principle and is encouraged when journalling, said Jamie Gruman, the Guelph, Ont.-based chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.
But Gruman notes there’s a risk in chaining yourself to doing it for 100 days straight. For example, self-affirmations such as Stuart Smalley’s mock self-help sketches on Saturday Night Live ("I’m good enough, I’m strong enough, and doggone it, people like me,") tend to backfire for those with low self-esteem.
"I think the main reason it’s probably not going to be as effective for a whole bunch of people is because it’s a hundred days, and that’s a long time to be focus and disciplined," Gruman said. "I think that people can fall off the wagon and feel bad about that, and so maybe cutting back on the number of days might be an effective thing to try."
Happiness is not a goal
Trish Bekkers adapted the challenge for her fifth grade class at Musquodoboit Valley Education Centre in Nova Scotia. Instead of posting photos and videos, the students are writing down moments of happiness three or four times a week in class for 50 days.
"We do a lot of things to support positive relations between kids," Bekkers said.
Spending time with family, participating in sports and reflecting on friendships were popular sources of happiness for the students.
"I wanted them to see that it wasn’t just the big trips that you take or the electronics that you buy, but it’s the little things every day that make you happy."
Student Taylor Newman has learned one lesson from looking back at her journal. "I think doing the moments of happiness you realize that you're actually a lot happier than you think."
A long-term paradox is that the pursuit of happiness is a process that takes time, effort and realistic expectations just like any goal, said Ulrich Schimmack, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto where he researches scientific understanding of happiness.
"Eleanor Roosevelt said happiness is not a goal, it's a byproduct," Schimmack said. "Quite a few people have noted that actively pursuing happiness might actually be counterproductive."
It can be dangerous to be examining "am I as happy as I could be?" every minute, Schimmack cautioned.
"There’s clearly constraints. Maybe there are ways to minimize the unpleasant moments and to maximize the happy moments. Our research suggests that this could lead to a small increase but a lasting increase in happiness."