How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

Can You Be Too Happy-Go-Lucky?

Can people be excessively happy?  Dysfunctionally happy?

 

I was recently invited to a screening of a film about happiness.  The film is called Happy Go Lucky (to be released in LA and NYC on Oct 10 and more widely 1-2 weeks later) and the director is Mike Leigh.  (In case some readers don't know him, Leigh has made some wonderful films in the UK, including Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies.)

I’m no movie critic, but I can say this:  Happy Go Lucky was really intriguing.  At first, you imagine you might hate it, but then it grows on you.  It's about a woman – played to great effect by Sally Hawkins – who seems like she's way too happy.  She’s relentlessly upbeat.  She sees everything and explPoppyains everyday events in a positive, optimistic, and charitable way.  (This gets downright dangerous sometimes, when she approaches and empathizes with a mentally ill homeless man, who may be violent.)  And she appears invulnerable to nasty people, a characteristic that serves well as fodder for some terrific and nerve-wracking scenes with her driving instructor.

Initially, I was convinced that the central character is just nuts (excuse the non-technical term) and totally dysfunctional, but then I realized that I may have been wrong all along.  The movie really made me think – in fact, so much that I couldn’t get it out of my head.

One of the questions that Happy Go Lucky brought to mind is whether people can indeed be excessively happy, dysfunctionally happy.

Psychologists argue that many, if not all, human traits have optimal levels.  With regard to the trait of happiness, studies show that people who report themselves as happy at age 18 will obtain more years of education and earn higher incomes in their 30s than will their less happy 18-year-old peers, but that those who score above the 90th percentile in happiness will actually do somewhat worse.  Interestingly, however, the pitfalls of being “too happy” are not observed in the domain of social relationships.  It has been known for a long time that happier people are more likely to get married, to have fulfilling relationships, to boast more friends, and to have higher-quality social support.  But if you rate yourself a 10 on a 10-point scale of happiness, you are still slightly better off in your romantic and social life than someone who is happy but not super-happy.  So, once a person is already moderately happy, becoming even happier may have costs in some domains, but not in others.

So, where does that leave our heroine of Happy Go Lucky?  You’ll have to see the movie to find out.

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Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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