3 Mistakes That Happy People Make

Happiness isn't the only legitimate emotion. Sometimes, it just gets in the way.

Posted Sep 15, 2014

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It is a mistake, however, to believe that happiness is entirely good, or that people should feel happy all the time. Emerging research suggests that life's shiniest emotion has a few downsides:

1. Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study, for instance, researchers employed a classic paradigm: they presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words. The tricky researchers include some false items related to the theme such as "sleep" that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words. 

2. Happy people can be too trusting.

Happy people are more likely to project their own rosy view of the world onto others. In one study, researchers video recorded a first group of people either taking something of value from an envelope or leaving it intact. Next, the second group of people—the research participants—watched the videos in which all of the original folks denied taking the contents of the envelope. They were able to detect liars about 50% of the time. When the researchers artificially induced a negative mood, however, people were able to spot deceit above chance levels (62% of the time). 

3. Happy people are less persuasive.

Years ago researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy folks are inclined to gloss over. In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.

Does this mean we should all swap our smiles for frowns? Of course not.

Happiness confers many important benefits—and it feels good. The trick is to recognize that happiness is not the only legitimate emotion and that other emotional states are more appropriate for certain situations. We call this "psychological flexibility," and it is a fundamental feature of psychological health and success. 

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. He is fascinated not only by happiness but also by the difficult aspects of human psychology and has written about these topics in his forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.