Under the Influence

How power, status, and social hierarchy shape us.

The Happiness Chronicles I: Is There a Dark Side to Happines

Is there a dark side to happiness?

In this three-part series, I will discuss recent research examining human happiness. Part 1 of the series considers the possibility that we could have too much happiness. 

Over the last 20 years or so, there has been an explosion of literature and accompanying research on the science of happiness. Most of this research has been devoted to understanding what makes people happy (or unhappy). In general, the research on happiness up to this point has been singularly focused on maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative emotions. If you need an example of this focus, I encourage you to take a stroll through your nearest local bookstore, Borders, or Barnes & Noble, examining the section marked "Psychology." What you'll find is a slew of books on becoming happier.

Clearly, there are benefits to experiencing positive emotion and costs to experiencing negative emotion, and research bears this out. For one, experiences of chronic negative emotion are bad for your health. Other work suggests that increased positive emotion enhances your motivations to affiliate with and help others. Still other research suggests that having income levels that are above poverty, moderately contributes to one's happiness, though not as much as you might expect. In general, you get the picture: There is a lot of research out there suggesting positive good, negative bad.

However, recent psychological inquiry has begun to ask the question, is happiness always good? That is, are there potential costs to seeking out happiness? The answer to this question comes from a recent review article written by Professors June Gruber, Iris Mauss, and Maya Tamir. Gruber and colleagues asked the question, is there evidence suggesting that positive emotion experiences can be maladaptive? Below I summarize their provocative conclusions.

Is there a wrong degree of happiness?
Gruber and colleagues suggest that you can actually experience too much positive emotion and this can be bad for your well-being. In essence, positive emotions bring back diminishing returns as the experience becomes more intense. There is even evidence that too much persistent happiness can make a person more risky and less well-adjusted. For instance, too much cheerfulness, as rated by teachers and peers, is correlated with early mortality. In addition, high degrees of euphoric happiness are associated with increased risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking. Other work suggests that high degrees of positive emotionality and low degrees of negative emotion are characteristics of mania and psychopathy.

Is there a wrong time for happiness?
Emotions have been called the grammar of social living, and as such, they represent adaptive physiological and motivational responses to changes in environmental circumstances. Viewing emotions in this fashion suggests another potential cost to persistent happiness: one may experience happiness at inappropriate times. For example, the authors argue that experiences of negative emotion can be adaptive in certain situations: for instance, being happy when one should be fearful or angry could slow down the physiological responses necessary to respond to the fear/anger stimuli (and by fear/anger stimuli, I mean, for example, approaching a grizzly bear!).

Are there wrong ways to pursue happiness?
Constantly pursuing happiness can lead to disappointment when one does not achieve one's goals. Thus, people who are always trying to pursue happiness, just for happiness' sake, are likely to feel worse as a result of this pursuit when they inevitably fail to become as happy as they'd like to be. In research supporting this view, people listening to a neutral music piece felt less happy when they were instructed to "try to make yourself feel as happy as possible" relative to people not given these instructions.

Are there wrong types of happiness?
Certain forms of positive emotion can be bad for your social outcomes. For instance, hubristic pride (which I wrote about at Psych-Your-Mind) is a positive emotion that is associated with vanity and narcissism. This form of pride is associated with denegrating, devaluing, and behaving more aggressively toward out-groups, and as such, has the potential to lead to a number of negative outcomes.

Gruber and colleagues have provided some compelling evidence, in my view, suggesting that there is indeed a dark side to happiness. What does this perspective say about the ways in which we pursue happy and meaningful lives? That is a question I pose to you (the reader). In the meantime, this Psych-Your-Mind post on buying happiness might help.

Cited Research

Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (3), 222-233 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406927


This post appeared previously on Psych-Your-Mind.

Michael W. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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