Running head: TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 1
Trying to Be Happier Really Can Work: Two Experimental Studies
Yuna L. Ferguson
Kennon M. Sheldon
Psychology Department, Knox College, Galesburg, IL, USA
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA
Word count: 8,914
Corresponding author: Yuna L. Ferguson is currently at Penn State Shenango. Email: email@example.com
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 2
Does the explicit attempt to be happier facilitate or obstruct the actual experience of happiness?
Two experiments investigated this question using listening to positive music as a happiness-
inducing activity. Study 1 showed that participants assigned to try to boost their mood while
listening to 12 minutes of music reported higher positive mood compared to participants who
simply listened to music without attempting to alter mood. However, this effect was qualified by
the predicted interaction: the music had to be positively valenced (i.e., Copland, not Stravinsky).
In Study 2, participants who were instructed to intentionally try to become happier (versus not
trying) reported higher increases in subjective happiness after listening to positively valenced
music during 5 separate lab visits over a 2-week period. These studies demonstrate that listening
to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is
combined with an intention to become happier.
Keywords: Happiness, mood, subjective well-being, intention, interventions, music
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 3
Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies
“What everyone wants from life is continuous and genuine happiness,” according to the
philosopher Spinoza. The idea that happiness is the ultimate goal in life has been echoed by other
important figures throughout history. From Plato, who sought to describe the attributes of a
happy being, through to the American Declaration of Independence in which the right to the
pursuit of happiness figures prominently, thoughts of happiness have preoccupied public
thought. The importance given to happiness appears to be a widely shared goal that transcends
cultural differences. A survey of individuals from various nations around the globe revealed
happiness to be highly valued (8.0, based on a 9-point scale; Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008).
Further attesting to the value placed on happiness is the ubiquity of self-help guides and
suggestions on improving the quality of one’s life. For example, Amazon.com boasts thousands
of happiness and self-improvement books. The amount of information and discussion devoted to
finding happiness suggests that, in general, people desire to lead happy lives. Although pursuing
personal happiness is sometimes thought of as a hedonistic and self-centered venture, current
research shows that there may be important interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of
being happy beyond simply feeling good. These effects include higher relationship satisfaction, a
greater tendency to engage in prosocial behaviors, higher income, and better physical health
(Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
This research suggests that happiness is important to a fulfilling life, but is it really
possible to increase happiness? Some research suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible, to
change one’s level of happiness. Studies of twins demonstrate that individuals’ experience of
happiness or related components of happiness, such as optimism and self-esteem may be
influenced by their genes (Caprara, et al., 2009; Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Neiss et al., 2006;
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 4
Plomin et al., 1992; Stubbe, Posthuma, Boosma, & De Geus, 2005). Research on monozygotic
twins suggests that even twins reared apart are remarkably similar in their level of well-being
(Plomin et al., 1992; Tellegen et al., 1988). If happiness is genetically determined, trying to
change it may be futile. However, more recent research suggests a more nuanced perspective of
the stability of happiness (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006; Heady, 2010; Lucas, 2008). People
seem to adapt to some significant life events such as marriage (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, &
Diener, 2003), but some individuals experience a stable change in their happiness after certain
negative events, such as divorce, unemployment, and disability (Lucas, 2005; Lucas, 2007;
Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2004). Thus, while there is some stability in people’s
happiness during their lives, it appears that certain major life changes can alter individuals’
happiness (Lucas, 2008).
A model offered by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) provides a more
comprehensive account of factors that determine happiness. This model acknowledges that there
may be multiple factors that determine individuals’ happiness that may be difficult to control,
including the genes that influence well-being and life circumstances. Despite these factors that
predict stability in one’s happiness, Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) propose that individuals may still
be able to alter their happiness through intentional behavior. Intentional behavior comprises the
remaining the portion of happiness, assumed to explain as much as 40% of the variation in
people’s happiness. While we may not be able to change our genetic makeup or specific life
circumstances, we may be able to direct our intentional behavior in such ways that are beneficial
to our well-being. For example, we may consciously direct our motivation towards goals and
pursuits that foster our well-being (e.g., cultivating social relationships) (Lyubomirsky et al.,
2005). The premise that individuals can actively participate in increasing their own well-being
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has spurred research that has examined many happiness activities or interventions.
Lyubomirsky’s (2007) book, The How of Happiness, reviews 14 empirically tested interventions,
such as engaging in prosocial behavior and practicing optimistic thinking. So far, empirical
examination of these activities and behaviors suggest that individuals can boost their well-being,
at least temporarily (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyubomirsky, et al., 2005; Seligman, Steen,
Park, & Peterson, 2005; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). In sum, a great deal of individuals’
happiness and well-being may be predetermined; however, there are also compelling reasons to
be open to the possibility that individuals are able to influence some portion of their happiness.
Can striving for happiness work?
In the current research, we examine an idea that is important to the question of whether it
is possible to become happier. Even if it is agreed that people’s level of happiness can change,
how should people seek to become happier? John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography remarks that
although happiness is an important end that people seek, it is only attained when individuals
“have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness” (Mill, 1964, p. 112).
While Mill acknowledges that happiness can change, he believed that not thinking about one’s
own happiness is the path to greater happiness. A detailed discussion of the perils of directly
pursuing personal happiness is found in the work by Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein (2003).
According to Schooler et al. (2003), a predominant focus on personal happiness may detract
individuals’ engagement with whatever activities they carry out. This may commonly occur in
situations in which individuals engage in activities, such as volunteering at a local charity or a
leisure activity, in order to increase their happiness. According to Schooler et al. (2003), in such
situations, individuals will overlook and miss out on the subtle positive experiences and qualities
of the activities themselves, because their attention on their own happiness has displaced their
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 6
focus on the activities. Research presented by Schooler et al. (2003) show that when individuals
are given a goal to increase happiness while listening to music, they report lower subsequent
happiness compared to individuals who are simply told to listen to the music. Sheldon (2004)
similarly recommends a “sidelong” approach in experiencing higher self-esteem, in which
individuals should gain self-esteem indirectly via world-focused efforts, rather than seeking to
directly increase their self-esteem. Recent work by Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, and Savino (2011)
also suggests that valuing happiness highly might prevent people from feeling happy, perhaps
because valuing happiness sets up excessively high expectations that are more difficult to meet.
While the above research indicates that directly pursuing happiness may be doomed to
fail in specific circumstances, there are also reasons for believing that the direct pursuit of
happiness is essential. Research on interventions to increase happiness over a period of time
demonstrates that the intention to increase in happiness is actually important to one’s
engagement with the interventions and to the eventual enhancement of well-being (Lyubomirsky,
Dickerhoof, Boehm, & Sheldon, 2011). In this research, participants self-selected into either a
study described to be about happiness or about cognitive exercises. Unknown to these
participants, both studies involved the same set of activities. Electing to engage in the study
about happiness was taken as evidence of the participants’ “will” to improve their well-being.
Compared to participants who signed up for the cognitive exercises study, participants in the
happiness study reported a higher increase in happiness over a 6-month period as a result of
engaging in empirically supported activities. Thus, this study implies that rather than interfering
with happiness, active pursuit of happiness may be beneficial while engaging in happiness
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 7
In fact, research on goals and motivation suggests that intentions are crucial for any
deliberate or purposeful action. According to the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985),
intentions are the most proximate predictors of behavioral outcomes. Meta-analyses of
correlational and experimental studies examining the relationship between behavioral intentions
and actual behavior outcomes have concluded that intentions do predict later behavior and
outcomes (Armitage & Connor, 2001; Milne, Sheeran, & Orbell, 2000; Webb & Sheeran, 2006).
Whether or not individuals finish their homework, maintain an exercise regime, or use sunscreen
partly depends on their intentions to do so. Working on elevating happiness also involves
planned action, and as such, the findings regarding intentions on goal pursuit may similarly apply
to the goal of happiness. Forming intentions and goals are necessary to direct individuals’
attention and effort towards the target outcome (Gollwitzer, 1993; 1999; Gollwitzer & Sheeran,
2006). According to Locke and Latham (2002, p. 706), “goals have an energizing function.” In
addition to providing motivational resources, Gollwitzer (1999) proposes that implementation
intentions work by eliciting situational cues that remind individuals to engage in the target
behavior at a non-conscious level. Similarly, theories on self-regulation, such as control theory
(Carver & Scheier, 1998), and the model of action phases (Gollwitzer, 1990; Heckhausen &
Gollwitzer, 1987), propose that the act of setting explicit goals prepares individuals to take
specific actions related to the desired outcomes.
These ideas suggest that if individuals desire a higher level of happiness and well-being
as outcomes, explicit intentions may help rather than hinder the process of attaining these
outcomes. For instance, consider a person who has been experiencing low well-being. This
individual experiences life as dull and tedious. If he does not initiate a change in his everyday
activities, he will unsurprisingly continue to experience low well-being. On the other hand, if he
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decides that he would like to experience life more fully and to be happier, this decision can serve
as the impetus for cognitive and behavioral changes that eventually facilitate greater well-being.
Gretchen Rubin (2009), the bestselling author of the memoir, The Happiness Project, shares a
similar story about a year-long search to become happier. After dropping off her daughter at
school one day, Rubin experienced a profound realization that she needed to actively engage in
becoming happier. Her book describes a year’s worth of activities she planned for herself, as
well as her reactions and reflections about her happiness. Her approach is at odds with the notion
that seeking happiness directly will ultimately backfire.
The Present Studies
The two studies described here experimentally test the hypothesis that explicit intentions
to increase in happiness results in higher, rather than lower happiness, as indicated by
participants’ mood state (Study 1) as well as their subjective happiness (Study 2). Together, these
two studies address a couple of important shortcomings in previous research.
First, Study 1 examines an alternative interpretation of one of the studies reported by
Schooler et al. (2003) which indicated that explicit intentions are harmful to individuals’
attempts to elevate their positive mood. In the Schooler et al. (2003) study, participants were
asked to listen to classical music and to either attempt to feel happier or to simply listen.
Subsequently, those who were instructed to try to feel happier reported lower positive mood,
suggesting that trying to feel happier backfires. However, these participants were played a single
selection of music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which is described as “hedonically ambiguous”
(Schooler et al., 2003, p. 57) and characterized as being complex and discordant. Such
descriptions would suggest that the Rite of Spring may arouse negative emotions such as fear
(Krumhansl, 2002). If this is the case, then individuals who are encouraged to feel happier with
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such music may instead feel frustrated and annoyed. On the other hand, music that is thought to
evoke happiness contains fast tempos, is rhythmic, and is consonant (Krumhansl, 2002). Based
on Lyubomirsky and colleagues’ (2011) finding stressing the importance of engaging in
empirically supported activities, it is possible that explicit intentions could enhance positive
mood when combined with a happier musical selection. In Study 1, we thus included type of
music as an additional factor and hypothesized that explicit intentions, combined with the
“correct method,” is most beneficial to one’s mental state.
Second, although informative, the study reported by Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2011)
lacked an experimental manipulation of the “will” to become happier. Participants in that study
self-selected into one of two groups, which makes causal interpretations about intentions unclear.
Possibly, preexisting differences among the participants not captured by the study’s method may
have influenced the higher increases in well-being among participants who chose to engage in
the study about happiness. Thus, in the present research, both studies manipulate participants’
intentions to feel happier. While Study 1 tests differences in positive mood predicted by type of
music and level of intentions, Study 2 examines changes in subjective happiness after a two-
Listening to Music as a Happiness-Enhancing Activity
In these two studies, we used “listening to music” as the potential happiness boosting
experience. Although not a conventional happiness activity such as practicing gratitude
(Emmons & McCullough, 2003) or exercising signature strengths (Seligman et al., 2005),
listening to music may be a viable method in improving well-being. After all, people often listen
to music to regulate their mood (DeNora, 2001). The amount and variety of music that is
available for our pleasure, as well as the ubiquity of electronic devices for enjoying music (e.g.,
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iPods) affirm the importance of music in our lives. Research on music also reveals that it is
emotionally evocative and that people generally agree on types of emotions expressed in music,
especially happiness and sadness (Krumhansl, 2002; Terwogt & van Grinsven, 1991). Because
of the affective response individuals have with music, engaging with music has been examined
and utilized as a form of therapy for individuals (Thaut & Wheeler, 2010). In the current
research, the positive effect of music is examined with a non-clinical sample presumed to be
generally well-functioning. Also, rather than focusing on alleviating symptoms or rehabilitation,
the studies examine music as a tool to elevate happiness.
In Study 1, the type of music given to participants was manipulated in addition to
participants’ level of intentions. Specifically, participants listened to either a part of Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring, a hedonically ambiguous piece, with many parts of it in minor key, or a part of
Copland’s Rodeo, which is hedonically positive. The difference in valence was verified in a pilot
test of the music. Participants enrolled in psychology courses at the same institution (n = 26) who
listened to the Copland’s Rodeo gave it a higher rating (M = 3.46, SD = .91) in response to the
question, “How did this music impact your mood?” (1 = very negatively to 5 = very positively)
compared to participants (n = 19) who listened to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (M = 2.89, SD =
.74; t(43) = -2.24, p = .03). The Copland piece was also given a higher rating (M = 3.62, SD =
.64) in “influenc[ing] people’s mood in general” (1 = very negatively to 5 = very positively) than
the Stravinsky piece (M = 2.95, SD = .91; t(43) = -2.90, p = .006).
We hypothesized that type of music would interact with level of intentions on
participants’ report of positive mood following the music activity. That is, the sheer will to
become happier may only be effective to the extent that they receive the Copland piece, or the
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 11
“proper way.” That is, having intentions to improve one’s mood may be unsuccessful unless
individuals use a correct method. Alternatively, a correct method may not work if individuals do
not expend an effort to feel happier. The two factors may work synergistically to increase
positive mood. Thus, participants who received the Copland piece and were encouraged to try to
elevate their positive mood were expected to report the highest level of positive mood compared
to participants in the low intentions condition and participants who received the Stravinsky piece.
The participants were recruited from a large Midwestern university and were offered
course credit in exchange for participation. The study began with a total of 173 participants, but
data from 6 participants were excluded because these participants were subject to a
malfunctioning central air system that caused excessive heat in the experiment room. Some of
these participants also experienced loud noises from building construction at the time of their lab
visit. The final sample included 167 participants (66.5% female) with an average age of 18.44
(SD = .84). About 82% of the participants described themselves as White, 10.2% as Black, 5.4%
as Asian, and 1.8% as Hispanic.
Procedure and materials
The experimental session began with the experimenter’s explanation about the purpose of
the study. Participants were told that this study examined the effect of classical music on
individuals’ ratings of mood. Participants assigned to the high intentions condition (n = 79) were
given the following instructions:
In order for us to adequately test the effects of classical music, it is important for you to
consciously try to improve your mood while listening to this music. So, in the current
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study, we’d like you to listen closely to the music and really focus on improving your
mood. In previous studies of classical music, psychologists have found that people’s
positive mood increases only when they exert conscious effort to try to increase their
mood. So, again, while you listen to the music, we would like you to really focus on
trying to feel happier.
In contrast, participants in the low intentions condition (n = 88) were asked to avoid exerting a
conscious effort to increase their mood and to relax and passively observe their natural reactions
In order for us to adequately test the effectiveness of classical music, it is important for
you to relax and passively observe your natural reactions. So, in the current study, we’d
like you to listen to classical music and just relax and be yourself as you listen to the
music. In order for us to test the effects of classical music in a fair way, it is important
that you do not try to consciously improve your mood. In previous studies of classical
music, psychologists have found that people’s positive mood increases only when they
don’t exert conscious effort to try to increase their mood. In fact, research shows that
attempting to change one’s mood usually backfires. So, again, while you listen to the
music, we would like you to just listen naturally.
In both conditions, we attempted to provide a reasonable rationale for the instructed style
of music listening. To ensure that participants understood the instructions and to check our
manipulation, they were asked, “To what extent will you intend or try to feel happier while
listening to the music?” (1 = Not at all to 5 = To a great extent). As expected, participants in the
high intentions condition reported a higher rating (M = 4.25, SD = .76) than participants in the
low intentions condition (M = 1.50, SD = .90; t(165) = -21.28, p < .001). Participants then
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 13
listened to either Copland’s Rodeo or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for approximately 12 minutes,
based on their condition assignment.
We conducted an additional analysis to see whether the participants’ engagement in the
music activity varied by their assigned level of intentions. Prior research raised the possibility
that actively attempting to increase happiness might backfire, because individuals may become
less autonomously motivated towards the happiness intervention (Schooler et al., 2003). Thus,
participants in Study 1 were asked, “To what extent did you enjoy completing the activity?” and
“To what extent did you feel pressured or obligated to complete the music listening activity?” on
a scale of 1 (“Not at all”) to 5 (“To a great extent”). Both of these items were based on self-
determination theory’s (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000) perceived locus of
causality construct, which is a common way of assessing autonomous or engaged motivation
(Ryan & Connell, 1989). Participants did not significantly differ in their enjoyment of the
activity (low intentions M = 3.70, SD = .95; high intentions M = 3.68, SD =.94; t(165) = -.10, p =
.92) or in their felt pressure to complete the activity (low intentions M = 1.80, SD = 1.20; high
intentions M = 1.99, SD = 1.25; t(165) = -1.01, p = .32).
After listening to the music, participants in Study 1 reported their current positive mood
using two measures. In the first measure, participants were asked to rate their agreement (1 = Not
at all to 15 = Extremely) with six positive mood descriptors (“happy,” “joyful,” “enjoyment/fun,”
“pleased,” “content,” and “satisfied;” α = .94) from Emmons’ (1991) short list of affect terms.
An average of the ratings was calculated for a score of positive mood. In the second measure,
participants were asked to report how positive they felt using a continuous line measure. They
were given a line that extended from “very negative” on one side to “very positive” to the
opposite side and asked to mark an “X” to indicate their positive mood relative to their negative
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 14
mood. Using a ruler, the distance between the “very negative” end of the line to the “X” was
measured and then converted in to a proportion of the entire length of line.
We conducted 2 x 2 factorial ANOVAs to examine the differences in mood across the
four conditions representing the combinations of the type of music and level of intentions. The
first analysis examined the average positive mood descriptors (Emmons, 1991) reported by the
participants (see Table 1 for descriptive statistics). Results suggested that type of music (F(1,
163) = 10.00, p = .002) and level of intentions (F(1, 163) = 6.90, p = .01) both significantly
predicted positive mood. However, these main effects were qualified by a significant interaction
of type of music and level of intentions in predicting mood (F(1, 163) = 4.52, p = .04). Follow-
up analyses showed that among participants who listened to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, level of
intentions did not predict differences in mood (F(1, 83) = .13, p = .72, d = .08; see Figure 1). In
contrast, participants who listened to Copland’s Rodeo did differ in their mood based on level of
intentions (F(1, 80) = 11.29, p = .001, d = .76) such that those in the high intentions condition
reported higher positive mood. Similar results were found for the other mood outcome, the
continuous line measure of relative mood. While both main effects, type of music (F(1, 163) =
12.17, p = .001) and level of intentions (F(1, 163) = 5.88, p = .02), significantly predicted
positivity of mood, the analysis showed a significant interaction effect (F(1, 163) = 4.26, p =
.04). Again, follow-up analyses suggested that participants who listened to the Stravinsky piece
did not differ in reported mood (F(1, 83) = .06, p = .82, d = .05) based on level of intentions, but
participants who listened to the Copland piece reported higher relative mood if they were also in
the high intentions condition (F(1, 80) = 12.51, p = .001, d = .84; see Figure 2). Thus, these
results support the hypothesis that it takes both “a will and a proper way” (Lyubomirsky et al.,
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 15
2011) to experience greater happiness. Intentions alone are not sufficient in elevating well-being,
as evidenced by participants who listened to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Additionally,
participants who listened to Copland’s Rodeo reported higher positive mood only when they also
consciously attempted to elevate their mood.
Study 1 revealed two important findings. First, participants who tried to feel happier
reported the highest level of positive mood when they listened to the Copland (happy) piece.
This demonstrates that the combination of intentions and proper method is important in raising
positive mood. Second, participants in both levels of intentions reported similar enjoyment of the
activity, suggesting that encouraging participants to feel happier does not necessarily lead to less
engagement with the activity itself. These findings are inconsistent with the work by Schooler et
al. (2003). A major limitation of this study is that it only provides a partial answer to the question
of whether intentions are important to building happiness. Study 1 examined mood, which is a
relatively short-term measure of happiness. Our second study therefore examined the effects of
explicit intentions on changes in subjective happiness over a 2 week period.
Participants in this study attended a total of five lab sessions in which they listened to
music from a variety of genres that were specifically chosen because they were thought to
enhance positive mood. We assessed participants’ well-being at the first and last lab session, and
we hypothesized that participants who were asked to intentionally elevate their well-being during
the lab sessions would report a larger increase in subjective happiness over time compared to
participants who were asked to passively listen to the music without intentions to alter their
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 16
A total of 68 participants were recruited from a Midwestern liberal arts college, who had
an average age of 19.26 (SD = 1.21). About 72.1% of the participants described themselves as
White, 16.2% as Black, 13.2% as Asian, and 7.4% as Latino(a). (The total percentage exceeds
100%, because some students identified with more than one of these ethnic backgrounds.)
Participants were given either cash (up to $25 for attending all sessions) or extra credit in a
course for engaging in the study
. Participants who attended all lab sessions as scheduled were
also entered into a drawing for one of four $50 gift certificates. Comparisons of participants
based on the type of incentive received showed no difference in pre and post subjective
happiness (both p’s > .49).
Procedure and materials
Participants attended five lab sessions during which they listened to 15 minutes of music
of their choosing from a preselected list. During the first lab session, participants were told that
the study examined whether music influences people’s happiness. Before listening to the music,
participants completed a survey containing demographic questions (i.e., gender, age, race/ethnic
background) and the Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999). The SHS
includes four statements in which participants are asked to evaluate their level of happiness (e.g.,
“Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting
the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?”). These
statements were rated on a 7-point Likert scale, with low values indicating low happiness. This
scale was deemed to have good reliability, based on Cronbach’s alphas ranging from .84 to .89
Participants were recruited across two academic terms, and the incentive differed based on term. During the term
in which all participants were offered a cash incentives, the extra credit option was not possible due to the lack of
availability of courses in which extra credit could be offered.
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 17
across the time points. During the interim sessions (between first and last visits), participants
listened to their chosen music for 15 minutes in each session. In the last lab session, participants
completed the SHS again following their music activity. Altogether, the sessions spanned two
weeks. In the pre- and post-treatment assessments, participants’ autonomous motivation towards
engaging in the music activity was also assessed using a similar measurement of perceived locus
of causality (Ryan & Connell, 1989) as in Study 1.
Participants chose a set of songs from genres listed in Rentfrow and Gosling’s (2003)
Short Test of Music Preferences. The following genres were included: blues, classical, country,
electronic, jazz, international, folk, indie, funk, hip-hop, and rock
. Each set included songs from
one genre, and participants were allowed to choose different genres across their lab visits to
enhance their engagement in the music activity. During each session, participants were asked to
rate their attitude towards the music they chose using two questions: “How much did you like the
musical selection?” on a scale of 1 (“Not at all”) to 7 (“To a great extent”) and “How would you
rate the overall quality of the musical selection?” on a scale of 1 (“Very poor”) to 7
(“Excellent”). Averaging across all sessions, participants generally liked the music (M = 5.37,
SD = .81) and thought that the music was of high quality (M = 5.34, SD = .77). Furthermore,
ratings of liking (t(66) = -.07, p = .95) and quality (t(66) = .01, p = .99) did not differ between the
high and low intentions conditions.
To experimentally manipulate participants’ level of intention to become happier,
participants were given different sets of instructions based on condition. As in Study 1, the
instructions for both conditions were worded in such a way as to encourage participants to
believe that following the instructions would be beneficial to their engagement in the study.
A complete list of songs is available upon request from the first author.
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 18
Participants in the high intentions condition (n = 33) were told the following during their first lab
visit as a part of the explanation for the study:
As you attend the lab sessions and engage in the music intervention, we encourage you to
think about your own happiness and focus on improving it through the intervention. That
is, we would like you to really try to become happier over the next two weeks. This does
NOT mean that you need to do anything extra in your everyday life other than attending
the lab sessions; we simply want you to think a lot about your happiness and try to feel
happier. Previous research on a variety of happiness interventions show that people who
make a concerted effort to becoming happier and focus on their happiness are more likely
to be successful.
In contrast, participants in the low intentions condition (n = 35) were asked to simply listen to
the music without an explicit effort to become happier:
As you engage in this study and attend the sessions, we would like you to really focus on
and really get into the music you are listening to. Because this is a study about happiness,
in addition to music, you might be tempted to think about your level of happiness and see
if it changes. However, we strongly encourage you to attend to the music rather focusing
on your happiness. This is important for two reasons. First, by focusing on your
happiness, you risk distracting yourself from enjoying the music and the positive effects
it may have on you. Secondly, research shows being preoccupied with one’s happiness
may itself make people unhappy. Happy people tend to think about their happiness less
Before the participants began listening to the music during each subsequent session, they were
reminded of these instructions by the experimenter in a shortened format (i.e., “Remember that
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 19
as you listen to this music, we would like you to think about your own happiness and try to
enhance it”). During the first lab visit, participants were also asked, “To what extent will you
intend or try to increase your happiness during the next two weeks?” on a scale of 1 (“Not at
all”) to 7 (“To a great extent”) as a manipulation check. As expected, participants in the high
intentions condition reported a higher average rating to this question (M = 5.24, SD = 1.42;
t(62.95) = -4.58, p < .001) than participants in the low intentions condition (M = 3.40, SD =
In both sets of instructions, we attempted to provide the participants with plausible
rationales based on previous research that attempting to become happier is beneficial (i.e.,
Lyubomirsky et al., 2011) and that pursuing happiness outright could backfire (Mauss et al.,
2011, Schooler et al., 2003). In doing so, we hoped to prevent participants from endorsing one
happiness-enhancing approach more than the other. To verify this, participants during the first
session were asked “To what extent do you believe this activity will actually increase your
happiness?” (M = 4.26, SD =1.29 for low intention, M = 4.58, SD =1.52 for high intention) and
“How effective do you think this activity will be in increasing your happiness?” (M = 4.31, SD
=1.13 for low intention, M = 4.58, SD =1.39 for high intention) on a scale ranging from 1 to 7,
with higher ratings indicating greater endorsement of the question. The ratings did not differ
between participants in the two conditions (t(66) = -.93, p = .35 for belief in happiness increase;
t(66) = -.85, p = .40 for activity effectiveness). Thus, participants reported high or low intentions
as expected by their condition assignment, but they did not differ in their anticipation that the
activity would affect their subjective happiness.
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 20
First, we examined whether participants differed in their autonomous motivation for the
happiness intervention based on condition. At baseline, the mean autonomous motivation ranged
from 7.17 (SD = 4.40) among participants in the low intentions condition to 7.42 (SD = 5.52)
among participants in the high intentions condition. At post-intervention, the mean autonomous
motivation ranged from 7.88 (SD = 4.44) among participants in the low intentions condition to
8.73 (SD = 5.11) among participants in the high intentions condition. At both time-points, the
participants did not significantly differ in their autonomous motivation (p’s > .47).
We also examined whether participants differed in their baseline levels in subjective
happiness (see Table 1 for means and standard deviations). The results showed no significant
baseline difference between conditions in either subjective happiness (p = .25). To compare
changes in subjective happiness between the conditions, we conducted a repeated-measures
ANOVA, with time of assessment as a within-subjects factor and level of intentions as the
between-subjects factor. The main effect of participants’ increase in happiness over time (F(1,
66) = 30.43, p < .001) was qualified by a significant interaction of the time of assessment by
condition effect (F(1, 66) = 7.94, p = .006). Follow-up analyses of the interaction showed that
the increase in happiness was driven by participants in the high intentions condition (F(1, 32) =
47.41, p < .001, d = .51) rather than participants in the low intentions condition, who did not
report a significant change in happiness (F(1, 34) = 2.95, p = .10, d = .20). See Figure 3 for a
visual representation of subjective happiness in the two conditions.
Extending the findings from Study 1, Study 2 showed that intentionally trying to become
happier (vs. only focusing on the music) over a 2 week period results in a larger increase in
subjective happiness. The current study suggests that rather than interfering with one’s
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 21
happiness, the “will” to become happier (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011), may be important if one is
to benefit from positive activities. Furthermore, we were able to verify that the participants in the
two conditions did not differ in their expectations about the activity or their motivation towards
it. Although telling participants to try to become happier may invite different expectations about
the effectiveness of the intervention and perhaps bias the high intentions participants to exert
greater autonomous motivation, participants did not differ in these aspects of their intervention
experience. The repeated finding that participants did not differ in their autonomous motivation
also suggests that trying to become happier is not any more burdensome or pressuring than not
The current research attempted to investigate whether pursuing happiness outright is
doomed to failure using two separate studies which induced participants to attempt to become
happier or not. Study 1 tested the interaction between intentions and the type of music as they
influenced participants’ positive affect. Study 2 examined a short-term change in subjective
happiness across a two-week period as a result of regularly listening to positively valenced
music. Neither study supported Schooler and colleagues’ (2003) findings that the explicit pursuit
of happiness is detrimental. Instead, participants asked to try to feel happier indeed reported
higher positive mood and subjective happiness. However, intentions alone are not enough; the
interaction effect found in Study 1 suggests that trying to become happier works only when using
an appropriate method. This finding is consistent with previous research that both the will and a
proper way need to be considered (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011).
The results of the studies also suggest that the simple activity of listening to music
evoking positive emotions could positive influence well-being. Previous findings show that
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 22
individuals perceive emotions in music (Terwogt & van Girnsven, 1991) and react
physiologically when listening to evocative music (Blood & Zatorre, 2001). Past research on
music therapy on individuals with physical, emotional, and/or developmental issues already
suggest that engaging with music has therapeutic properties. Among non-clinical samples,
regularly listening to music could similarly benefit their well-being, if the music is imbued with
positive emotions, typically marked by fast tempo, harmonious structure, and major keys
Implications for future research on well-being
The question of whether trying to become happier is self-defeating is important to
consider given how highly individuals value happiness. Furthermore, the increasing popularity of
positive psychology and self-improvement literature indicates that the pursuit of happiness is
constantly pondered idea. Many individuals spend a great deal of time and energy to improve
their well-being. If trying to become happier itself is counterproductive, trying to improve well-
being, as well as continuing research on interventions, is futile. Given the findings from the
current research, it appears that such effort is not necessarily pointless, especially in the context
of empirically supported happiness activities. The results suggest that without trying, individuals
may not experience higher positive changes in their well-being. Thus, practitioners and
individuals interested in happiness interventions might consider the motivational mindset as an
important facet of improving well-being.
Although our research suggests that it is beneficial for individuals to put out the effort to
improve their well-being, it is nevertheless possible that explicit intentions may be harmful under
certain circumstances. According to the ironic processes theory (Wegner, 1994; 1997), when
individuals intentionally try to control their mental states, they sometimes experience the
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 23
opposite of what they attempt when they are simultaneously under cognitive duress. Ironic
processes theory proposes that individuals have two mental processes that operate together, the
conscious, intentional mental process seeks cues that signal successful mental control, and the
ironic monitoring process seeks evidence that disconfirms successful mental control. When
individuals who are already preoccupied with a different cognitive task intentionally try to
suppress negative feelings, they may instead end up exacerbating their negative state (Wegner,
Erber, & Zanakos, 1993). This happens as the ironic monitoring process alerts individuals that
their conscious process was unsuccessful at alleviating the negative state. Based on this theory,
it is possible that our findings would be different if participants were under an additional
cognitive load beyond listening to the music. This possibility remains to be investigated.
Explicitly attempting to feel happier also appears to be inconsistent with the tenets of
mindfulness, which is a concept based on Buddhist philosophies. Mindfulness is described as a
cognitive and experiential state of being aware of and attentive to the present moment (Brown,
Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Carson & Langer, 2006; Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Practicing mindfulness
includes accepting the present reality as it is without defensively distorting it and without
judgment towards oneself or others. Interventions based on mindfulness have been shown to be
effective in reducing distress and elevating well-being (Brown et al., 2007). In these
interventions, individuals who practice mindfulness are encouraged to focus on their present
state rather than on their past or the future, which is seemingly inconsistent with the notion of
trying to become happier than one already is. However, it is also possible that intentionally
seeking happiness is in line with mindfulness. For some individuals, “intentions to become
happier” could mean that they are open and receptive to the possibility of experiencing a greater
level of positive mood and enjoyment from activities, which is consistent with a mindful
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 24
orientation. In contrast, intentions could invite an impatient, “Am I there yet?” mode of engaging
in the happiness interventions. In the latter case, individuals may be constantly wondering
whether the effort and energy they are devoting to the activity is paying off, which may be
harmful to individuals (Mauss et al., 2011). Thus, future research may also consider
disentangling what it means to have intentions to become happier and identify moderator
variables that determine the approach individuals take in their effort to become happier.
Several limitations of this research should be considered when interpreting the findings of
the two studies. First, a major limitation of this research involves the measurement of mood and
happiness. According to Schooler et al. (2003), one of the difficulties associated with pursuing
happiness is individuals’ ability to accurately assess their hedonic state; thus, the sole use of self-
report measures to assess mood and happiness in the current studies poses a limitation. Future
research should therefore consider employing alternative methods in assessing individuals’
hedonic states and well-being, including implicit measures and physical indices. Still, the
measures we used are commonly used in the literature, and are typically accepted at face value.
In relation to investigating the outcomes of intentions, future research could incorporate
other possible moderators or manipulation checks, such as assessing participants’ thoughts about
their happiness during the intervention itself. A finding that participants in the high intentions
condition report thinking more about their happiness than participants in the low intentions
condition would allow us to be more confident about manipulating intentions. Furthermore,
manipulation checks in general could be conducted before and after the activity or intervention to
ensure that participants understood the instructions and were able to comply with the
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 25
Additionally, the samples for the two studies were drawn from a predominantly
European-American population. Thus, the cross-cultural relevance of the findings is limited to
individuals from other backgrounds who share similar views on achieving happiness. Although
people across the globe generally seem to value happiness (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008),
certain cultural differences in the effectiveness of happiness strategies exist (Boehm,
Lyubomirsky, & Sheldon, 2011). If this is the case, the findings regarding intentionally pursuing
happiness should be interpreted cautiously when applying them to non-European-American
Lastly, while the purpose of this research was driven by the need to understand how
individuals can increase and maintain their happiness over a long period of time, Study 1 lasted
only a few minutes, and Study 2 lasted only about 2 weeks. Whether the changes in happiness
resulting from these studies can be sustained is unknown. According to Sheldon and
Lyubomirsky’s (2006) model of happiness, individuals are thought to continue to derive benefits
from their activities as long as the activities are sustained and attempts are made to incorporate
variety. Extensions of this work should include longer time-frames to examine the sustainability
of happiness changes.
The science of well-being has attracted a great deal of attention in the past few years,
sustaining a healthy market for popular books on self-improvement and happiness. The
systematic investigation of happiness interventions within the field of positive psychology seems
to have gained momentum, as well. In the current research, we found that when paired with the
appropriate strategy, individuals’ assigned to try to become happier experienced greater gains in
well-being, as measured by positive affect, subjective happiness, and life satisfaction. This
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 26
research also leads us to wonder what exactly is occurring when people are consciously trying to
become happier. In the current research, “trying to become happier” was left for participants to
interpret themselves. Future research should further delineate this concept and examine how
intentions relate to well-being under a variety of situations.
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Table 1. Means and standard deviations of the dependent variables.
Rite of Spring (“ambiguous”)
T1: Subjective happiness
T2: Subjective happiness
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 34
Figure 1. Positive affect across conditions, Study 1. The error bars reflect standard errors of the
means in each condition.
Ambiguous music Happy music
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 35
Figure 2. Relative affect across conditions, Study 1. Higher values indicate higher positive affect
relative to negative affect on a continuous line measure. The error bars reflect standard errors of
the means in each condition.
Ambiguous music Happy music
TRYING TO BE HAPPIER WORKS 36
Figure 3. Subjective happiness by condition, Study 2.