Pursuing the happiness of others

Pursuing your own happiness is something many find good and normal. The American Declaration of Independence states that every American has the right to pursue his or her happiness. But does pursuing your own happiness bring happiness? Titova & Sheldon (2021) investigated it and came to a surprising discovery.

Pursuing your own happiness can backfire

In this article I mention a book by Frank Martela in which he states that being happy in Western countries has become the cultural norm and an obvious goal in life. But, he says, pursuing your own happiness is not a good goal. He argues that it does not lead to an experience of meaningfulness in life and that it can actually be counterproductive.

Own happiness by aiming for someone else's happiness?

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated the pursuit of happiness for others. He said, "The surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others." Several recent studies suggest there is some truth to this. For example, a meta-analysis by Curry et al. (2018) showed that performing acts of kindness towards others improves the well-being of the person performing these acts.

Need for relatedness

The reason why social and kind behavior towards others may lead to happiness more than the pursuit of happiness for oneself may be that it leads to the fulfillment of the basic psychological need for relatedness. Another possible explanation is that seeing others become happy makes you happy because their happiness is contagious to you. Their happiness, as it were, jumps over to you.

Research: pursuing your own happiness vs. happiness for others

Researchers Titova & Sheldon (2021) conducted a study comparing two strategies: the pursuit of your own happiness versus the pursuit of the happiness of others. In study 1, they found that thinking back to a situation where people were trying to make someone else happier brought people more well-being than thinking back to a situation where they were trying to make themselves happier.

In Study 2, an experiment, they found that doing something to make someone else happier led to a higher increase in well-being than trying to make yourself happier or spending time socializing with others. This effect was replicated in study 3. In studies 4 and 5 they used a new comparison condition: being made happier by others. They discovered that trying to make others happy is a better way to achieve your own happiness, even more so than when others try to make us happy.

The researchers also found support for the expectation that the happiness focus of others makes you happy through the fulfillment of your own need for connection. What they found no support for was the idea that seeing the other person's happiness had an effect on their own happiness.


This research exposes one of the many paradoxes in life. Do you want to be happy? Do not try to follow the shortest route to your own happiness, but try to mean something good to others. In this way, you meet a fundamental need we all have, namely to be connected to and to care for others. That is why this leads to us feeling better.