How Happiness Can Harm Us
The potential healing power of sadness.
Posted Oct 22, 2020
“I need a little alone time
A little dream time
But don’t worry I will be back baby
I need a little be-gone time”
—From “Alone Time” by Rufus Wainwright
Happiness is perhaps the most overrated emotion. What is it exactly? As far as I can tell, it generally refers to anything that gives us pleasure — ranging from a mildly blissful state to unbridled joy and elation. And don’t get me wrong — happiness can be a good thing in moderation. It feels good to be happy. But should it be this overarching, all-encompassing 24/7 aspirational goal?
Perhaps not, as our relentless and overwhelming pursuit of happiness could come at a cost. Specifically, when we are happy, we may not necessarily properly evaluate the risks of engaging in unhealthy but pleasurable behaviors in our lives.
Take the current coronavirus crisis. If happiness is our goal, we would ignore or defy all recommended precautions. I am much happier not wearing a mask than I am wearing a mask. I am much happier attending concerts where people are packed into small venues than I am watching live shows on my computer. And when I am consumed by unbridled joy, I am perhaps less likely to consider these risks or engage in the behaviors necessary to be healthy.
There is a long history of research supporting the hypothesis of “depressive realism,” or the notion that somehow depressed people have a more “objective” take on the world. And by having less of a positive bias, it is easier to perceive risks. In fact, research suggests that “healthy neurotics,” people who display negative affect while also being conscientious, organized, and responsible, may demonstrate improved health. For example, research suggests that people who are moderate worriers are more likely to get breast cancer screens.
But happiness may be harmful not only by interfering with our engaging in healthier behavior but also by interfering with our healing. I have been thinking a lot about this notion since my conversation with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. Throughout his career, including on his new album Unfollow The Rules (2020) and in his new live stream series “A Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective,” Wainwright has examined how he balances being willing to explore his depression as part of his healing process. As an example, his song “Alone Time” examines his need to take time to himself before being able to engage with others.
This approach is consistent with conceptualizations of sadness as opportunities for contemplative thought and healing. As an example, when people lose a loved one and experience grief, we do not label this reaction as pathological. And the deep sorrow that defines grief is similar to the sadness that afflicts people when they are depressed. Yet we would not consider encouraging someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one to push away their sadness to be happy. We recognize the need to struggle, to figure things out and make sense of it all.
The sadness associated with grief or depression performs a function by drawing us inward and perhaps into a thoughtful and contemplative state. One of the consequences of depressed mood is rumination, or repeated thought that tends to be repetitive. In fact, theorists suggest that repetitive thought as seen in rumination can actually be adaptive if it is organized towards “making sense of events,” problem-solving, and working towards goals.
In this way, sadness and depression appear very similar to the immunological response that we call “sickness.” In the presence of a viral or bacterial infection, our body organizes to give itself the best chance to heal. People often experience feelings of malaise, increased sleep, and reduced appetite. These symptoms are very similar to the body’s reaction to a stressor such as loss of a loved one, job, access to fulfilling activities, or a difficult transition such as moving.
So, what can we do to allow ourselves to be happy without it being harmful?
First, we can stop putting so much pressure on everyone to “be happy” or what has been referred to as the “tyranny of happiness.” I see happiness more like junk food to which we could apply the “80/20 rule.” It’s nice to have happiness in our lives as something that sweetens things up and adds a bit of enjoyment. But it shouldn’t be our main source of emotional nourishment. We are perhaps better served if our main source of sustenance is more purposeful — experiencing a deeper sense of meaning, fulfillment, satisfaction, and self-actualization. Happiness isn’t getting me to study hard to do well in school, work late to save money for my kids’ college, or allow myself to be choked repeatedly to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
It is purpose and determination that propel us to do those things that are meaningful to us even if they don’t inherently make us “happy.” To be sure, these are emotional states that can also feel good – make us happy, if you will. But feeling good is a by-product of the journey, not the goal. The goal is to accomplish the things in our lives that are consistent with who we are and want to be. In fact, our pursuit of those goals may often be marked by negative emotions such as frustration, anger, and disappointment that inherently emerge from the difficult task of working towards important life goals. Initial research evidence shows that focusing on a more purpose-driven emotional system improves our lives. And in fact, people who report having a stronger sense of purpose live longer, engage in healthier behaviors, and demonstrate a greater capacity to cope with stress.
Second, during those times when we are pursuing happiness, we need to be careful that we are not inadvertently minimizing their focus on unpleasant but healthy behaviors. We are seeing this issue surface now with “pandemic fatigue.” We miss our pre-pandemic lives and we yearn to feel happy in any way. And many of us are pushing past the uncomfortable and not-so-happy preventive health behaviors that could keep us safe in the long term. This is difficult to fight when the drive for happiness is strong. But we must weigh the consequences of these actions and make sure we are finding our bliss in the healthiest and most sustainable ways possible.
Finally, when we are feeling sadness or depression, we need to take a moment to consider whether our mood is linked to something in our lives that requires attention and healing. Perhaps we have experienced a loss or a difficult transition or are disconnected from the things that we enjoy doing. During those times, it may be better to listen to our moods and take the opportunity to pull back to contemplate what is happening and consider how we want to move forward to make change. Because just like Rufus Wainwright, we may need a little time alone to figure things out before we can connect with others.
To be clear, this does not mean people should not seek mental health care when they are struggling with conditions such as depression or anxiety. But part of effective treatment should be to consider whether our mood is reflective of something in our lives that is causing us to suffer, and to take the time to address those issues. An immediate rush to feel “happy” may improve our mood but inadvertently cause us harm if we ignore the underlying issues that we face.
So overall, being happy can be one part of our overall well-being. But we need to be careful to not overdo it and assume that other emotional experiences such as meaning, fulfillment, and even depression and anxiety, don’t have a role in helping us lead a full and healthy life. Who knows, maybe we can have the best of both worlds and be able to be both happy and healed.
You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Rufus Wainwright on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app