Embracing the Dark Side

Discerning the positive aspects of sadness, bereavement, and other negative feelings.

The pursuit of happiness and its dark side

The pursuit of happiness and its dark side

Mainstream American culture has a real thing for happiness. We believe happiness to be the most important goal of human life. We also believe that people (at least those who are strong, self-reliant, hard-working, and virtuous enough) can achieve happiness if they pursue it. Neither belief is completely true, but most of us are motivated to remain convinced of both of them.

Fortunately, these beliefs have powerful social benefits: they lead to a broad acceptance of differences in human lifestyles and behavior. Common expressions like "different strokes for different folks" or "whatever floats your boat" acknowledge that different people seek different paths to happiness and that we won't always understand the choices that others make along the way. However, we can accept and even applaud any number of unusual behaviors if we can see them as ways of pursuing and achieving happiness. For example, if I leave a high-ranking position in a big corporation for a life raising chickens on a small farm, my friends will ignore their initial misgivings if they believe this life change could make me happy.

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Unfortunately, our beliefs in the importance and achievability of happiness result in dysfunctional beliefs about the meaning of unhappiness. Here are some of them:

Because we believe happiness to be an important achievement, unhappiness is a sign of failure.

Because we believe happiness to be attainable by strong, self-reliant, hard-working, and virtuous people, we believe that unhappy people are weak, dependent, lazy, and morally flawed.

Because we believe happiness to be both desirable and achievable, we question whether unhappy people actually want to be happy. Because happiness is such a defining cultural value, those who appear not to want it are alien to us.

So unhappy people are morally bankrupt foreigners who are failures at life. No wonder we have a hard time accepting people who are experiencing unhappiness, even if those people are ourselves. But just because it's understandable doesn't mean it's adaptive or healthy. Let's by all means pursue happiness – but let's not let our love of happiness make us miserable.


Jenna Baddeley is working on a Ph.D. in social/personality and clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.


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