Friday, September 2, 2011

The Happiness Chronicles, Part I: Happiness, is there a Dark Side?

This is the first part of an occasional series at Psych Your Mind that will delve into psychological experiences that contribute to (or detract from) happiness. In Part I of this series, we will discuss the potential dark side of happiness.

Over the last 20 years or so there has been an explosion of literature and accompanying research on the science of happiness. Most of this research has been devoted to understanding what makes people happy (or unhappy)? In general, the research on happiness up to this point has been singularly focused on maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative emotions. If you need an example of this focus, I encourage you to take a stroll through your nearest local bookstore, Borders, Barnes & Noble, examining the section marked "Psychology". What you'll find is a slew of books on becoming happier.

Clearly, there are benefits to experiencing positive emotion and costs to experiencing negative emotion and research bears this out. For one, experiences of chronic negative emotion are bad for your health. Other work suggests that increased positive emotion enhances your motivations to affiliate with and help others. Still other research suggests that having income levels that are above poverty, moderately contributes to one's happiness, though not as much as you might expect. In general, you get the picture: There is a lot of research out there suggesting positive good, negative bad.

However, recent psychological inquiry has begun to ask the question, is happiness always good? That is, are there potential costs to seeking out happiness?

The answer to this question comes from a recent review article written by Professors June Gruber, Iris Mauss, and Maya Tamir. Gruber and colleagues asked the question, is there evidence suggesting that positive emotion experiences can be maladaptive? Below I summarize their provocative conclusions.

Is there a wrong degree of happiness?
Gruber and colleagues suggest that you can actually experience too much positive emotion and this can be bad for your well-being. In essence, positive emotions bring back diminishing returns as the experience becomes more intense. There is even evidence that too much persistent happiness can make a person more risky and less well-adjusted. For instance, too much cheerfulness, as rated by teachers and peers, is correlated with early mortality. In addition, high degrees of euphoric happiness are associated with increased risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking. Other work suggests that high degrees of positive emotionality and low degrees of negative emotion are characteristics of mania and psychopathy.
Too much happiness is a possible symptom of mania. (source)

Is there a wrong time for happiness?
Emotions have been called the grammar of social living, and as such, they represent adaptive physiological and motivational responses to changes in environmental circumstances. Viewing emotions in this fashion suggests another potential cost to persistent happiness: One may experience happiness at inappropriate times. For example, the authors argue that experiences of negative emotion can be adaptive in certain situations: for instance, being happy when one should be fearful or angry could slow down the physiological responses necessary to respond to the fear/anger stimuli (and by fear/anger stimuli, I mean the approaching grizzly bear!).
Feel happy? We have a problem. (source)

Are there wrong ways to pursue happiness? 
Constantly pursuing happiness can lead to disappointment when one does not achieve one's goals. Thus, people who are always trying to pursue happiness, just for happiness' sake, are likely to feel worse as a result of this pursuit when they inevitably fail to become as happy as they'd like to be. In research supporting this view, people listening to a neutral music piece felt less happy when they were instructed to "try to make yourself feel as happy as possible" relative to people not given these instructions.

Are there wrong types of happiness?
Certain forms of positive emotion can be bad for your social outcomes. For instance, hubristic pride (which we've written about before) is a positive emotion that is associated with vanity and narcissism. This form of pride is associated with denegrating, devaluing, and behaving more aggressively toward out-groups, and as such, has the potential to lead to a number of negative outcomes.

Gruber and colleagues have provided some compelling evidence, in my view, suggesting that there is indeed a dark side to happiness. What does this perspective say about the ways in which we pursue happy and meaningful lives? That is a question I pose to you (the reader). In the meantime, Juli's post on buying happiness might help.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (3), 222-233 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406927


  1. I've personally learned to appreciate moments in life where there is little or no happiness. I'm down for the entire range of human emotion and I'll take the bad with the good. I've always felt that without occasional sadness, we'd never realize what happiness was.

    I probably shouldn't say this, but... I'm going to say it anyway.
    I've met people that are in perpetual states of happiness and they are particularly unpleasant to be with.


  2. Thanks for the comments D, I think that if I had one critique of the article I might say that it'd be nice if the article stressed the idea of emotional balance more completely. Understanding the notion that life is full of ups and downs is one that I think would help foster more long-lasting well-being. Thanks for reading!

  3. Great article Michael.

    I believe if there wouldn't be any valleys there couldn't be mountains.

    I have a chronic thyroid problem and every few months my hormones go a bit crazy and my system shuts a bit down. This also affects my mood, but I have learned to embrace such times. Without them it wouldn't be so easy for me to enjoy regular everyday life so much.

    Equanimity is imo more enjoyable as happiness. It has more focus on balance.

  4. Thanks Jay! I agree that an appreciation of the peaks as well as the valleys is important for psychological well-being. In fact, there is a bit of research on how authenticity (feeling you, rather than feeling necessarily positive) is actually quite adaptive. The late researcher Michael Kernis would be one person to look up in this regard.

    Thanks again for reading!