A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

The Dark Side of Happiness

Can happiness be bad for you?

Some serious economists have given in. They want to give up all their really important metrics such as GNP, GDP, annual average income for GHI: Gross Happiness Index. The Government’s happiness tsar wants to take valuable time out of the school syllabus, where you could maths and science and have lessons in happiness instead.

To some the idea is preposterous. Happiness is mainly dispositional like Introversion-Extraversion. You can teach someone to look happy but not be happy. For others happiness is a by-product of some activity such as helping others or exploiting your talents. The more you seek it, the less you find it. Happiness comes serendipitously to those who lead a good life. But isn’t happiness ‘psychological wealth’. Isn’t a “sunny disposition”; “constant cheerfulness”; “eternal optimism” the best possible thing you could have? As priceless as diamonds and rubies.

We know intuitively that happiness and well-being are a very desirable state. The positive psychologists and affective scientists have “proved” that people think more clearly and make better decisions when happy. We know that happy people build and maintain healthier relationships with others which brings many benefits. It is clear we are more creative when in a positive state of mind. And there is new, very clear evidence of the health-related benefits of being happy. After all, that is why it is called “well-being”.

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But could there be a darker side to happiness? Three American psychologists in Perspectives in Psychological Science (2011, Vol. 6) took a leaf out of a book by Aristotle to ask four questions:

1. Can there be a wrong degree of happiness?

The first obvious question is that of linearity. Is more better or is there an optimal amount? Are they true, all those injunctions about moderation? There are, as it turns out, quite a few reasons to doubt the ‘more is better’ argument. We know when people have great ‘highs’ like those with bipolar disorder, or mania, or where the happiness state is drug induced, that they often and very happily indulge in extremely risky (and hence dangerous) behaviours.

2. Is there a wrong time/place for happiness?

Many mental illnesses are characterised by difficulties in expressing negative emotions. Extremely happy people may not have enough experience of set-backs and frustrations. They may be less vigilant about threats of all kinds. When faced with problems we have a ‘fight or flight’ option. Negative emotions trigger powerful physiological forces that prepare us to confront others. Happiness can make people gullible, naive and inattentive. They choose not to see possible problems and dangers. When the environment is safe and predictable happiness may be a virtue. But life, alas, is not like that. The expression of negative emotions can have manifold benefits. Expressing anger can help a great deal in negotiations. Showing sadness could elicit offers of help. Emotions of fear, anger and sadness can be very useful in life.

3. Are there inappropriate/wrong/misguided ways to pursue happiness?

Could it be the more we pursue the great goal of happiness, the less likely we are to experience it? We know from the experience of other goal pursuit and attainment: the higher we set the target, often the more disappointed and discontented we may be frustrated by failing to hitting to hit it. Studies of personal happiness goal attainment illustrate the paradox well: there are usually maladaptive outcomes because people are set up for disappointment. Sometimes the happiness junkies become egocentric and damage their personal relationships. The person in blind pursuit of happiness can be obsessively self-focused, less reflective but also less attentive to others who are, or at least can be, a major source of happiness.

Equally, the therapy literature shows that the more people accept, rather than reject, negative feelings, the better they feel. Flexible and adaptive emotional regulation is good. Engage in happiness-enhancing situations and see what results. Engage in activities for their own sake, i.e. intrinsically, not extrinsically.

It’s like soap in the bath. The more you try to grab it the more cloudy the water: the more difficult it is to find.

4. Are there wrong types of happiness?

Are there different flavours of happiness? Can it mean great excitement and great calm? At its base level it is defined as the presence in amount of positivity over negativity.

But some things that may in the short-term bring happiness to the individual could cause the opposite effect. Happiness may impair social functioning through selfishness. Goal attainment may result in hubristic pride and narcissism which is deeply unattractive to others. Cultural conventions mean that certain happiness-inducing activities can only result in embarrassment, guilt and shame. Some cultures value contentment and calm over excitement. Some define happiness more socially than others: social harmony vs personal hedonic experience. So it may be that happiness is like food. Necessary and enjoyable, but you can eat too much. There are better and worse times to eat and some food is better for us than other.

Happiness comes to those who do not single-mindedly pursue it. It’s not healthy to be acutely and

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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