One of the most poignant scenes in season two of NBC’s This Is Us is when Kevin—a former high school star quarterback and homecoming king turned failing actor struggling with addiction—returns to his hometown to receive an honored alumni award. In his acceptance speech, Kevin begins to thank his coach and parents, but, as he considers the effort these mentors invested in him, Kevin realizes just how far he has fallen and how disgraceful his behavior has been. Envisioning his deceased father on stage with him, Kevin realizes he is far from the man his father dreamed he would become. He ultimately delivers a depressing monologue about his own lack of honor, and—spoiler alert—the episode becomes a catalyst for some dangerous, rock-bottom behavior.
How and why could a genuine expression of gratitude transform into something so unpleasant?
The benefits of engaging in “positive activities” to promote happiness are well-documented. Positive activities are deliberate cognitive and behavioral strategies aimed at promoting happiness. Expressing gratitude, performing acts of kindness for others, or spending time savoring the moment are all positive activities that can increase happiness.
Unfortunately, the story is not as straightforward as we would hope. The science behind how positive activities work also yields insights about when striving to become happier may backfire.
Research illustrates that happiness seekers are likely to be unsuccessful when practices like gratitude or kindness elicit negative, rather than positive, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, or when they reduce, rather than boost, a sense of connectedness, competence, or control.
Consider gratitude as an example. Gratitude exercises may lead you to feel ashamed, incompetent, or inferior for having needed help in the first place or for not fulfilling the benefactor’s expectations, as we saw with Kevin’s speech. Writing a letter of gratitude to someone who supported you could make you feel guilty or embarrassed for not having thanked this benefactor sooner, or could make you feel deeply indebted as the burden of needing to reciprocate sinks in. Some of us have had the experience when the heartfelt sharing of gratitude was uncomfortable or awkward and hence caused us to feel less, rather than more, connected to the other person. These potential negative outcomes may cause those of us trying to become happier through gratitude activities to become paradoxically unhappier instead.
Another surprising example of a positive activity that can trigger negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is performing acts of kindness. Acts that are overly generous, like giving away one’s cell phone to a stranger, or excessively burdensome, like spending one’s entire weekend helping a neighbor move, may promote feelings of resentment, frustration, or anger. The giver may feel taken advantage of, exploited, or distressed.
The response of the recipient may also give rise to negative thoughts or behaviors that contribute to unhappiness. For example, the giver may feel low autonomy if her recipient expects or demands the kind act. Or the giver may feel incompetent if his kind act did not help the recipient as intended. If the recipient responds negatively—perhaps because she feels patronized or because the help is inappropriate or inadequate—the giver may feel even more discomfort and embarrassment, and a diminished sense of connectedness with the recipient. Additionally, the giver may be stung by negative thoughts about himself (“Was I foolish to try to help when nobody asked?”) or about the recipient (“I was just trying to lend a hand, but he was being a jerk about it”).
It is also possible that so-called positive activities may have deleterious effects not just on happiness seekers, but also on the people around them. Consider an older person who stubbornly declines a neighbor’s offer to help carry his grocery bags inside. This unwanted or ill-timed act of support may trigger feelings of guilt or vulnerability in the recipient. It is not that the neighbor intends to offend him but that the recipient resents the implication that help is necessary in the first place. The subtle, inadvertent presumption that an individual could not do this act on their own could elicit feelings of being burdensome or incompetent.
Interestingly, some research suggests that merely witnessing other people being the targets of kindness may invoke negative social comparisons. It is easy to imagine someone at work wondering, “Why is everyone so nice to my colleagues and not to me?”
Furthermore, gratitude expressions may not be received positively in all contexts. In East Asian cultures, an expression of gratitude may be viewed as burdensome (something one needs to reciprocate), and parents may feel insulted for being thanked for doing something they consider to be part of their parental duty.
Why do these seemingly positive activities have negative consequences?
It may be adaptive for certain practices to produce unpleasant feelings, particularly in the short term, in order to attain future rewards. In previous work, we have proposed that gratitude can stimulate self-improvement by engendering enough positive emotion (e.g., feeling uplifted and supported by others) to motivate the person to approach their goals, but also enough negative emotion (e.g., feeling guilty and indebted) to recognize the need to do so.
For example, a college student might think, “Now that I recognize how hard my parents worked to support me throughout my education, I want to prove myself worthy of their sacrifices by being the best student possible.” The student’s feelings of love for her parents, relief at being able to attend college, and hope for her future, paired with the subtle notion of guilt for her parents’ sacrifices and embarrassment at not having achieved her best grades, may compose just the right emotional medley to energize her academic efforts.
Illustratively, in This Is Us, Kevin’s negative experience with his thank you speech and his subsequent downward spiral prompt the realization that he needs to turn his life around; he enters a treatment facility and begins to redeem himself.
Future research may indeed find that small, brief “backfiring” effects are necessary for positive practices to produce gains in well-being in the long run. Ultimately, in light of the mounting evidence that small and simple self-administered positive activities can transform people into happier and more flourishing individuals, it is critical to focus more empirical attention on what may not be “positive” about such practices and habits.
With the above precautions in mind, we may be tempted to avoid using practices like gratitude and kindness altogether, lest our efforts to become happier boomerang and leave us more miserable than we were at the start. But, in striving for greater happiness, it is crucial to keep in mind that the very behaviors that may sometimes undermine our efforts, like writing a letter of gratitude to a mentor, are those that we need to harness to increase our happiness. Research suggests that selecting positive activities that fit best with us as individuals—with our personality, interests, and values—will maximize the chances that such efforts catalyze well-being rather than backfire.