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Four Ways Happiness Can Hurt You

By June Gruber | May 3, 2012 | 33 comments

Can feeling good ever be bad? New research says yes—and points the way to a healthier, more balanced life.

In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of scientific research revealing precisely how positive feelings like happiness are good for us. We know that they motivate us to pursue important goals and overcome obstacles, protect us from some effects of stress, connect us closely with other people, and even stave off physical and mental ailments.

This has made happiness pretty trendy. The science of happiness made the covers of Time, Oprah, and even The Economist, and it has spawned a small industry of motivational speakers, psychotherapists, and research enterprises. This website, Greater Good, features roughly 400 articles about happiness, and its parenting blog is specifically about raising happy children.

Clearly, happiness is popular. But is happiness always good? Can feeling too good ever be bad? Researchers are just starting to seriously explore these questions, with good reason: By recognizing the potential pitfalls of happiness, we enable ourselves to understand it more deeply and we learn to better promote healthier and more balanced lives.

Along with my colleagues Iris Mauss and Maya Tamir, I have reviewed the emerging scientific research on the dark side of happiness, and we have conducted our own research on the topic. These studies have revealed four ways that happiness might be bad for us.

1. Too much happiness can make you less creative—and less safe.

Happiness, it turns out, has a cost when experienced too intensely.

For instance, we often are told that happiness can open up our minds to foster more creative thinking and help us tackle problems or puzzles. This is the case when we experience moderate levels of happiness. But according to Mark Alan Davis’s 2008 meta-analysis of the relationship between mood and creativity, when people experience intense and perhaps overwhelming amounts of happiness, they no longer experience the same creativity boost. And in extreme cases like mania, people lose the ability to tap into and channel their inner creative resources. What’s more, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that too much positive emotion—and too little negative emotion—makes people inflexible in the face of new challenges.

Not only does excessive happiness sometimes wipe out its benefits for us—it may actually lead to psychological harm. Why? The answer may lie in the purpose and function of happiness. When we experience happiness, our attention turns toward exciting and positive things in our lives to help sustain the good feeling. When feeling happy, we also tend to feel less inhibited and more likely to explore new possibilities and take risks.

Take this function of happiness to the extreme. Imagine someone who has an overpowering drive to attend only to the positive things around them and take risks of enormous proportions. They might tend to overlook or neglect warning signs in their environment, or take bold leaps and risky steps even when outward signs suggest gains are unlikely.

People in this heightened ‘happiness overdrive’ mode engage in riskier behaviors and tend to disregard threats, including excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. In a 1993 study, psychologist Howard S. Friedman and colleagues found that school-aged children rated as “highly cheerful” by parents and teachers had a greater risk of mortality when followed into adulthood, perhaps because they engaged in more risk-taking behaviors.

All these results point to one conclusion: Happiness may be best when experienced in moderation—not too little, but also not too much.

2. Happiness is not suited to every situation.

Our emotions help us adapt to new circumstances, challenges, and opportunities. Anger mobilizes us to overcome obstacles; fear alerts us to threats and engages our fight-or-flight preparation system; sadness signals loss. These emotions enable us to meet particular needs in specific contexts.

The same goes for happiness—it helps us to pursue and attain important goals, and encourages us to cooperate with others. But just as we would not want to feel angry or sad in every context, we should not want to experience happiness in every context.

As psychologist Charles Carver has argued, positive emotions like happiness signal to us that our goals are being fulfilled, which enables us to slow down, step back, and mentally coast. That’s why happiness can actually hurt us in competition. Illuminating studies done by Maya Tamir found that people in a happy mood performed worse than people in an angry mood when playing a competitive computer game.

In my own laboratory, we’ve found that individuals who experience happiness in inappropriate contexts—such as watching a film of a young child crying or that scene from Trainspotting when Ewan McGregor digs through a disgusting feces-covered toilet—were at greater risk for developing the emotional disorder of mania.

Josh Gosfield/Corbis

Happiness has a time and a place—it’s not suited for every situation!

3. Not all types of happiness are good for you.

“Happiness” is a single term, but it refers to a rainbow of different flavors of emotion: Some make us more energetic, some slow us down; some make us feel closer to other people, some make us more generous.

But do all types of happiness promote these benefits? It seems not. In fact, a more nuanced analysis of different types of happiness suggests that some forms may actually be a source of dysfunction.

One example is pride, a pleasant feeling associated with achievement and elevated social rank or status. As such, it is often seen as a type of positive emotion that makes us focus more on ourselves. Pride can be good in certain contexts and forms, such as winning a difficult prize or receiving a job promotion.

However, my research with Sheri Johnson and Dacher Keltner finds that when we experience too much pride or pride without genuine merit, it can lead to negative social outcomes, such as aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even an increased risk of mood disorders such as mania. Work underway in my laboratory, led by graduate student Hillary Devlin, supports the tantalizing notion that self-focused positive emotions like pride may actually hinder our ability to empathize, or take another person’s perspective during difficult emotional times.

The bottom line: Certain kinds of happiness may at times hinder our ability to connect with those around us.

4. Pursuing happiness may actually make you unhappy.

Not surprisingly, most people want to be happy. We seem hardwired to pursue happiness, and this is especially true for Americans—it’s even ingrained in our Declaration of Independence.

Yet is pursuing happiness healthy? Groundbreaking work by Iris Mauss has recently supported the counterintuitive idea that striving for happiness may actually cause more harm than good. In fact, at times, the more people pursue happiness the less they seem able to obtain it. Mauss shows that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely they will be to set a high standard for happiness—then be disappointed when that standard is not met.  This is especially true when people were in positive contexts, such as listening to an upbeat song or watching a positive film clip. It is as if the harder one tries to experience happiness, the more difficult it is to actually feel happy, even in otherwise pleasant situations.

My colleagues and I are are building on this research, which suggests that the pursuit of happiness is also associated with serious mental health problems, such as depression and bipolar disorder. It may be that striving for happiness is actually driving some of us crazy.

How to find healthy happiness?

But how exactly can we attain a healthy dose of happiness? This is the million-dollar question.

First, it is important to experience happiness in the right amount. Too little happiness is just as problematic as too much. Second, happiness has a time and a place, and one must be mindful about the context or situation in which one experiences happiness. Third, it is important to strike an emotional balance. One cannot experience happiness at the cost or expense of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger or guilt. These are all part of a complex recipe for emotional health and help us attain a more grounded perspective. Emotional balance is crucial.

Finally, it is important to pursue and experience happiness for the right reasons. Too much focus on striving for happiness as an end in itself can actually be self-defeating. Rather than trying to zealously find happiness, we should work to build acceptance of our current emotional state, whatever it may be. True happiness, it seems, comes from fostering kindness toward others—and toward yourself.


To read the academic paper on which this essay is based, go here.

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About The Author

June Gruber, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, and director of the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory. Dr. Gruber is also a licensed clinical psychologist. She was recently named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science.

  

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I love this website but I have to say this article annoys me. It’s as if the writer has seen a list of blog writing strategies and decided to go for the “juxtaposition” approach.

“it is important to experience happiness in the right amount.”

In all serious, how many people do you know who tell you “Dammit, I am just too darn happy”?

When is the last time you met someone complaining about their excess of happiness?

If happy people take more risks then I can only say, wonderful. We live in a world of lives half lived because people are afraid. Afraid to take risks, and yes, afraid to be happy.

finally, whilst pusuing happiness may be counter productive, I think that you can apply that to goals in general. The happiness is the journey, not the destination, but nothing new about that observation.

Rannoch | 4:15 am, May 5, 2012 | Link

 

It’s all about balance, isn’t it?

I found this piece to be a welcome relief from the
glut of popular work on happiness, positive
psychology, and mindfulness. I’m not opposed to
any of these. In fact, my research interests are in
the relationship of attachment, dispositional
mindfulness and subjective well-being.

What I don’t like is the trend I see of jumping on
the bandwagon of the latest topic du jour. I thank
Dr. Gruber for a refreshing, balanced approach.

John Burik | 2:47 am, May 6, 2012 | Link

 

Where I appreciate the effort that went into the research and writing of this article, I find it somewhat trivial. I will say that this does not mean that I do not agree with, or can not see, your point of view.

I guess it just seemed a little over the top to do the research that was done in order to reach the conclusions that were made. It all just seems very, well, commonsensical. Is research actually needed to know that something is wrong if you feel happy when you watch a baby cry, or a grown man dig through feces? I would think the answer to that question is pretty obvious.

Also to use the term “groundbreaking” in reference to figuring out that pursuing something could cause more harm than good is a bit dramatic. Yes, of course if you set a goal and fall short you are left unhappy instead of happy, and if the pattern is repeated could lead to depression. So should we just leave it to logic and teach our children that if once you do not succeed give up and never try again? That putting effort into something important to you is not worth it because you may have to work hard and experience a little pain? Should we have low to moderate standards in order to never be let down for being unable to achieve them? No thanks.

You also mention how through research, you found that not all happy feelings are good, or can be destructive. One such example being the emotion or feeling of pride.Is research really necessary to know that too much pride is a bad thing? You can open a history book a there is an abundance of examples of what too much pride can lead cause. Welcome to the cause of most wars throughout our history. You could also just go to a school yard and watch a group of boys play sports or have a crush on the same girl. Most likely they will be rolling around on the ground fighting at some point.

In regards to the notions of too much happiness can be a psychological deterrent, is this not obvious? Is there any mental state, good or bad, that if in its extreme state you would still able to think and function lucidly? Most likely there is not. There are not many, if any, things on this world that when taken to the extreme do not also come with a number of proverbial side effects.

When I was reading this, it honestly read like a satire. It was hard for me to take it too seriously, even though it was full of rational points. It was the level of seriousness that it was written with that caused me to have this disposition. The fact that it was written with the intention of sharing new found groundbreaking discoveries in the human psyche was a bit much for me. Again, as I stated before, I do understand what you are saying and agree with a number of the points made, but to what avail? Are you positive this is not just meant to come across as edgy?

Kyle Melton | 1:42 pm, May 8, 2012 | Link

 

Oy!

Please take this as constructive critique. I agree
with the first comment about the annoying quality
of this article. The title and premise seem designed
to catch your attention rather than address a real
need. Too much happiness is not a real problem to
solve. Then the article disappoints because it’s not
really about “too much happiness.” I think each of
the 4 topics is worth exploring on their own, but
the wrapper is misleading.

Try again, please.

David Delp | 12:57 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

This article makes a lot of sense, particularly in the way it takes happiness out of the “happy meal” category and puts more nuance - and realness - back into the picture. One thought in particular occurred to me in reading it:  how thin the line (or close on the continuum, if you look at it that way) manic behavior can be to genuine happiness.  If our risk taking is untethered to a realistic sense of self, that line has been crossed.  If we are narcissistically damaged, the definition of happiness is likely to include a disregard of threats, a lack of empathy, and the inappropriate expressions of it mentioned by the author.

The more low key versions of happiness Dr. Gruber acknowledges at the end - fostering kindness towards self and others - add a welcome depth to the concept itself.

Greg Jemsek | 5:19 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

I have enjoyed this organization’s website very much for the past few years and I most certainly see the value in your choice to share this article based on it’s relationship to the usual message. I see a lot of annoyed bloggers out there, complaining about the triviality and obvious nature of the discussion despite good points.

In truth, it is sad that we need to do this research, but it is relevant. Why? Because we are OBSESSED with happiness in this country! We avoid unhappiness in this country. Why do you think they call it PROZAC NATION? Far too many people who are only mildly unhappy are on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds because we DO want the false happiness that we see in the media. For example:  “Take this allergy med, take this sexual stimulant and you will be happy! Put an end to your financial woes and YOU WILL BE HAPPY.” Unfortunately, we still haven’t integrated mindfulness and acceptance into our lives; for many, emotions such as grief or simply the blahs and blues are too much for us to tolerate. We mistake them for diseases of depression (i.e.: Major Depression).

Yes,I agree that no-one is complaining of too much happiness; however, they are still deluded in their thinking that happiness is one nose job or tummy tuck away.

The article mentions fostering kindness toward others as an appropriate action toward happiness. I couldn’t agree more. When we discard narcissism for altruism, then we can create the collective happiness that sustains the well-being of the entire society.

Angela | 6:28 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

The author raises some points worthy of discussion, but
she appears to think she’s alone or unique in proposing
this approach to happiness. There are several previous
works that have examined similar areas, including the
latest book by Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for
People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Rey Carr | 9:16 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

I am relieved to see this as the persuit of happiness can be overdone - yes it is about balance.  I have also noted that happiness, for me, seems to correlate with being in a comfort zone and that correlates with not achieving very much.  I don’t see why we have to be miserable to achieve but it does seem to be a stronger driver for some of us?!  smile

Susan | 11:39 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

Flaubert said that ‘what a man needs for happiness is three things: good health, selfishness, and stupidity. But if the third is missing, it is disaster’.

Mick Bourke | 11:32 pm, May 20, 2012 | Link

 

People pursue all sorts of different things and often
they do not know why nor does it much matter. 
What matters is whether what you pursue is worth
pursuing.  And most people pursue some good things
and some bad ones.

Roger | 6:07 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

...to paraphrase Berty Russell: happiness makes
a pig out of you, e.g., American Billionaires.

carlos lascoutx annis | 6:29 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

One reason this article is irritating is that it treats
happiness only as a means, not as an end. So what if
one is less creative, or less likely to win a video
game or some other artificial competition, if one is
happy? Maybe it is those sorts of ambitions that
should be criticized as potentially problematic,
rather than happiness.

Serge | 7:56 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

I’m amused to see that the author is studying the
effects of pride. I think the early Christians nailed
that one a long time ago when “Pride” was listed as
one of the seven deadly sins.

Bunk McNulty | 8:47 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

“Dr. Gruber is also a licensed clinical psychologist.”

And what happens if people get too happy? They
stop hiring clinical psychologists. You don’t have to
look hard to see a conflict of interest here.

Jon Jermey | 1:50 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

It might have been more helpful if the author had distinguished between situational happiness - positive emotions in response to an event - and pervasive happiness - an extended positive mood generally unconnected to any particular event.  Situational happiness, even in excessive amounts, is natural, healthy, and by it’s very nature short-lived.  It’s a feeling, not a mood. Pervasive happiness is a positive mood state that is highly desirable at healthy levels, but when experienced at extremes - by irrational levels of optimism, self-confidence, exuberance, expectation, and/or exceptionally high spirits - can be quite problematic.

Sara | 2:15 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

Being irrationally happy is not happiness. Deluding oneself that the next shiny object will bring happiness is not reality.

Too much happiness? Too much sense of entitlement, to much pride, too much ego, too much self regard, all of these things might have a superficial air of happiness about them, but they are not happiness in the real sense.

Better perhaps to acknowledge that people who confuse transient emotions, short term gratification or pleasure at the expense of others with happiness are not in the real sense happy, they are simply shoring up their insecurities.

Valuing others, expressing gratitude, celebrating small pleasures, sharing with those you love. These things define happiness for me and I don’t think we can have too much of them.

Rannoch | 2:24 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

Interesting to see so many comments from people who have taken the time to read the article and express themselves, yet no response from the author.

Rannoch | 2:28 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

Click bait, as a previous poster noted.

You can’t have everything. If happiness means sacrificing creativity, competitiveness, empathy and other socially desirable qualities, then so what? Happiness is its own reward, it needs no further justification. It is the socially desirable attributes which need justification, usually in terms of greater future happiness as the delayed reward for lesser current happiness. Though for those with a strong conscience, doing good works may even lead to greater current happiness.

The Flaubert quote sounds clever but is wrong, because he confuses addiction to social activities (literature, conversation, fashionable clothing, flirting with the opposite sex, Facebook, etc) with intelligence, and lack of interest in social activities as stupidity. Replace “intelligent” with “socialized” and “stupid” with “brutish” and Flaubert’s formula works. Good health + selfishness + brutishness => happiness of an animal or solitary wandering holy man. Good health + selfishness + socialization => disaster.

It might seems that selfishness + socialization would not interfere with happiness for someone who wins all of society’s races at once. Problem is, no one in a democracy is at once richest, most famous, most liked, most beautiful, most powerful, tallest, fastest, most intelligent, etc. Too many races to win them all at once, which means the winner will always be missing something and thus not happy (because socialization implies boundless ambition). Plus, the body degrades. So even if you did win all today’s races, you’d have to worry about losing in the future and that would be a source of worry. An all-powerful dictator could arrange to win all the races, but then dictators have to worry about rebellions. In short, socialization is what causes unhappiness. To achieve happiness, aspire to brutishness, by rejecting the socialized personality in favor of the underlying animal self.

frank r | 2:55 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 
Jeremy Adam Smith's avatar

Greetings; my name is Jeremy and I’m the Web
Editor for the Greater Good Science Center.

I wanted to quickly respond to Rannoch’s comment:
“Interesting to see so many comments from people
who have taken the time to read the article and
express themselves, yet no response from the
author.”

I actually think it can be a good thing when authors
opt to stay out of reader discussion; at the least, it’s
a defensible approach. The author has her say in
the article; comments are a space in which others
can speak.

Of course, an author may choose to participate in
the discussion; that’s actually my own personal
policy. But I make exceptions to that—sometimes,
depending on the forum or the content of the
comments themselves, it’s best to stay out of it.
Sometimes I’m just too busy to reply; authors have
lives, too.

In any event, it’s up to the authors to decide how
they want to engage and how much space they’d
like to give other opinions. It doesn’t necessarily
indicate that the author is avoiding discussion—and
it’s possible she may engage at a later point, after
others have had a chance to speak.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 3:18 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

It’s astonishing how few Americans are aware of the origins of the pursuit of happiness in their constitution.

If the author had read Hutcheson he might have presented a coherent summary or critique instead of this rough collage of slender research findings.

stuart munro | 4:39 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

the points in the article seem do like common sense after you’ve read them, but so does most everything else.  I’m happy to see a lively dialogue in the comments section.

Sir Magneto | 5:50 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

I am ambivalent about most of the comments.  I
think that empirical research is always a good
thing, but I agree with the commenters who
criticize the author for being a little too smug.  This
is just another one of a thousand cases where
subjects that have been discussed and studied for
centuries are suddenly trotted out by a social
scientist who believes they have reinvented the
wheel.  Most of the points the author raises have
been known for a long time. 
  The tension between happiness and creativity has
been widely acknowledged and discussed by many
of the world’s most famous writers - Nietzsche,
Aldous Huxley, Walker Percy .. The list goes on and
on.  It has been endlessly discussed since
antidepressants hit the market.  The famous book
“Listening to Prozac” caused such a stir in part
because the author honestly acknowledged that
universal happiness would probably eliminate
writers like Walter Percy but argued that that was a
valid trade-off.
  It has also been known for a long time that the
happiest people are those who pursue other means
- whether a religious calling, a profession, their
art, whatever - and experience happiness indirectly
as a result.  There is nothing new in this finding.
  There is also nothing surprising in the fact that
being too happy can have negative consequences. 
There is virtually nothing positive that does not
have some potential negative in some
circumstances.  Every educated person knows this.
  The most amusing thing about the article is that
after admitting that the happiest people are
people who do not directly pursue happiness, he
asks “How to find healthy happiness” and gives a
numbered approach.  In fact, the happiest people
are not people who set out “to experience
happiness in the right amount” - the author just
said as much in the previous section! All of the
evidence suggests that the happiest people have 2
common characteristics 1) they have a genetic
disposition to happiness 2) They have found a
lifestyle or calling which makes them happy and
achieve happiness indirectly.  You can see why
people who think they can achieve happiness by
setting out to do something called “pursuing
happiness” are frequently so disappointed and wind
up less happy.
  Regardless, would it kill these social scientists to
just acknowledge that they didn’t invent wisdom
yesterday?

Johnny G Ray | 6:44 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

It’s folly to go chasing after happiness. Pursue consciousness instead. Google “The Meaning of Evolved Consciousness.”

Peter Michaelson | 10:06 am, May 24, 2012 | Link

 

It seems to me like you’re trying too hard to find a
reason to take a controversial position… this felt like
very sophisticated click bait

mangooler | 5:42 pm, May 25, 2012 | Link

 

To connect “excessive alcohol consumption, binge
eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use”, the
favorite pastime of people in despair,  with
happiness ... wow! This one’s new.

Seriously guys, you just want to get into The
Guinness Book Of World Records for overcoming
the greatest-ever distance between something and
something that it is not - don’t you?

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” (observed
Samuel Beckett before us). You sure put in work to
prove the point. Point proven. Actually, your
headline alone does the trick.

Beat Schindler | 2:23 am, May 26, 2012 | Link

 

Happiness, in the truest sense of the word is not achievable for a humanity which remains prisoner to it’s evolutionary roots. For in defining that aspiration, the most important element of happiness must be freedom from fear. And knowledge and values have not advanced far enough to secure that final freedom in any but the most temporary and transient of ways. Wisdom still eludes us!

robert landbeck | 4:46 am, May 27, 2012 | Link

 

Where do you GET all this excessive happiness? 
Happiness is a sometime thing.  Like being on a slow
rollercoaster with only one big peak.  As soon as
you’re on the top, for a brief moment you’re ‘happy’,
but you spend most of your time morosely chugging
along on a level track, hoping and waiting to get
back on the peak.

Lassie | 8:34 am, May 27, 2012 | Link

 

When I first read about the law of emotional balance
a few years ago at http://www.ofgrandeur.com, i thought
the author was nuts, but now it seems that everyone
is jumping on the emotional balance bandwagon. It is
really starting to look like there is no free happiness.

Bradley | 5:45 pm, May 27, 2012 | Link

 

Having experienced deep levels of unhappiness, this article is totally contradictory to my own personal life experiences. For example: Pride and happiness????// Pride are happiness are not correlated in my opinion. Pride is the ego. I could easily put across a very different viewpoint from the ones above (with practical, real life experiences).
In fact my unhappiness was soooo low, I no longer wanted to live. I turned it around within 5 months! I had a dream and passion to help others who were experiencing unhappiness, so wrote a book ‘Moving on Up! Secrets to an Upbeat and Happy Life’ it’s for anyone who knows they can be happier but doesn’t yet know how to do that. I know that with the right help people can feel happier. There is also a free 17 mins de-stressing/relaxation audio available on my website http://www.movingonupnitasaini.com. I wonder what the world is coming to when I read articles like the one above. That’s my opinion though and we’re all entitled to those.

Nita | 12:05 am, May 29, 2012 | Link

 

I cannot agree more with this article.Too much happiness can make one feel haughty and arrogant that he/she has everything and possess does not care attitude.However, we all try to achieve that state work hard to fulfill our dreams.I do believe that title should have been like “The Adverse Effects of Happiness.”

ATSNE | 11:34 pm, May 31, 2012 | Link

 

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