It’s good to be happy. So you should actively pursue those uplifting positive feelings, indulge yourself, maybe deck yourself out in a some new designer duds, go buy that fancy car you’ve been wanting, and drive it out to Las Vegas where you can party till dawn with your night owl friends. Right?
Well, maybe not.
A number of researchers have found that the pursuit of happiness might sometimes be a fool’s errand. Being happy can lead you to ignore potentially dangerous consequences of your choices, to be more gullible, and to think in more simplistic and stereotyped terms. And an active desire to make yourself happy can lead you to be disappointed with your real life. Iris Mauss is a social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley who studies the possible negative consequences of seeking happiness. In earlier research, she found that people who place a great value on being happy actually have more mental health problems, including, sadly enough, depression. In a follow-up experiment, she found that watching a film singing the praises of happiness set people up for disappointment, and led them to actually feel worse.
In a recent series of studies, Mauss and her colleagues found a link between seeking happiness and being lonely. In a first correlational study, the researchers asked participants about the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “feeling happy is extremely important to me.” Then they asked participants to keep a daily diary of stressful events, and to record their feelings of loneliness. The results showed that people who value happiness were more likely to feel lonely when they were under stress.
In a second study, the researchers experimentally manipulated people’s desire for happiness, by having some of the participants read a newspaper article praising the value of being happy. Here’s an excerpt:
People who report higher than normal levels of happiness experience benefits in their social relationships, professional success, and overall health and well-being. That is, happiness not only feels good, it also carries important benefits: the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular.
Other participants read a similar article, except that it extolled the benefits of “accurate judgment” instead. All the subjects next watched a film on affiliation and social intimacy.
Afterwards, subjects rated the extent to which they felt “lonely” and “distant from other people.” And the experimenters took a sample of subjects’ saliva, to test for the presence of progesterone, a hormone known to be associated with feelings of intimacy.
Subjects who had read the article about the value of happiness responded to the film by rating themselves as more lonely. And their progesterone levels were lower than those of the control group.
Why does this happen? The authors speculate that “valuing happiness might lead to a focus on the self, potentially damaging social connections.”
Should you go out of your way to avoid happiness?
This line of research suggests that there can be some down sides to pursuing glee, but that does not mean that happiness itself is a bad thing. In fact, a great deal of research suggests that naturally occurring happiness is generally associated with positive relationships and positive mental health (e.g., Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Myers, 2000). The paradox is that you don’t want to directly seek happiness as an end in itself. Instead, happiness, contentment, and satisfaction are all natural consequences of other activities, such as productive work, and ironically, going out of your way to make other people happy.
On the other side of the equation, there is research suggesting that you are better off learning to accept negative feelings in life. One of my colleagues gave me a bit of advice that sounds jaded, but actually contains a kernel of solid wisdom. He said that to get along in your marriage, you need to be ready to eat a spoonful of shit every day. Sometimes it’s a tiny demitasse spoon, he advised, and sometimes it’s a big heaping soup spoon. But if you learn to expect it, and stop complaining, you’ll have a happier marriage. That advice applies not only to marriage. If you set up the expectation that your life will be like a series of episodes from a happy 1950s situation comedy, supplemented with a bigger modern house, a new car every year, all the latest technological gadgets, and exciting vacation adventures, you’re sure to be disappointed. If you expect it to be more like, well, real life, and you do what you can to make that real life easier on the other people around you, well, you might just find yourself better off.