When Is Being Happy Not Good for You?

Being happy at the wrong time, in the wrong place, puts your health at risk.

Posted Jul 19, 2020

At a time when our political leaders want us to feel optimistic and even happy despite evidence that suggests our world is anything but wonderfully safe and healthy, I’ve been thinking about phrases like the “dark side of happiness” and the “paradox of resilience.” There is much we can learn about maintaining our mental health from research on how excessive happiness and feelings of invulnerability are actually dangerous. “Don't worry, be happy” might be a cute refrain, but sometimes despair and unhappiness are more likely to provide us with a sustainable sense of life satisfaction and motivate us to do the right thing to keep ourselves and others safe.

Almost a decade ago, June Gruber at Yale University and her colleagues published an odd paper explaining how, when, and why happiness should be avoided during periods in our lives when we need to clearly take action to overcome problems. Happiness, they explained, has its costs too. 

What is happiness anyway? It is generally assumed that happiness has three components: (1) the hedonic positive emotions that we enjoy so much; (2) a decrease in negative emotions like anxiety or depression; and (3) a hodge-podge of cognitions like feelings of life satisfaction, meaning in life, and goal attainment.

So what could possibly be bad about the pursuit of happiness? It turns out a lot. Excessive feelings of happiness can actually increase our use of harmful substances (we tend to party more) while people who are extremely content with themselves may exhibit rigid regimes of behaviour and uncompromising beliefs. Think of any religious zealot, whether Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, and one can see how self-satisfaction is the basis for xenophobia and intolerance of others who aren’t willing to accept the zealot's “truth.” Gruber’s team even found research that showed that excessively happy people tend to stereotype others more and make snap judgements about their guilt or innocence. Add to this critique of excessive euphoria worries over mania and one can see that too much happiness can compromise a more balanced existence. Rather than happiness all the time, we should accept that our lives are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and a whole lot of in-between.

Then there is the problem of timing. Being happy on a sunny summer’s day at the beach makes sense but may not be the best emotion for confronting a sexually abusive employer. Nor is it the right emotion for political leaders to evoke from citizens when their lives, and their country, are in danger. While I see no problem with letting the good times roll when there are an abundance of opportunities for everyone, during an economic downturn or when one is constantly being assaulted by the prejudice of others, happiness is maladaptive if it prevents us from taking action or accurately assessing the danger around us.

The same downside to happiness is also coming to light in studies of resilience, a concept I’ve spent two decades researching around the world. While “bouncing back” from adversity might seem like a worthy goal, resilient people, organizations, and governments actually have their downsides as well.

The paradox of resilience is that anytime you have a system that is stuck in a single regime of behavior, doing the same thing over and over again and thinking it is surviving, the less likely that system is to adapt when change is necessary. In some ways, we are now witnessing this pattern as the hyper-individualism that has been a hallmark of the American dream doesn’t work so well when dealing with a pandemic that requires everyone to participate in flattening the curve and preventing infection.

Likewise, businesses that become wedded to a specific technology (think Kodak and film) are vulnerable to being wiped out by a technological change (like digital photography). In other words, strong and persistent might be good qualities to have when what we have to offer is needed, but resilience that pushes us forward despite setbacks is plain stupid when the world changes around us and we are left doing things that make us obsolete or put us and others in danger.

Maybe it’s time we embrace something better than happiness? Our ability to survive and thrive is more likely to depend on character traits like adaptability, flexibility, and tolerance of differences than individual contentment which can make us blind to the right action required when times turn difficult.

References

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Psychological Science, 6(3), 222-233.