We all want to be happy. There is a growing body of research on happiness and the positive effects it can have on personal well-being. The self-help industry is fueled by the personal goal of being happy and the practice of positive psychology encourages the growth of personal happiness.
But beware the happiness hype. Happiness might be better for sales than for the soul.
In a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Dr. June Gruber, Dr. Iris Mauss, and Dr. Maya Tamir explored the shadow side of the pursuit of happiness. In our society unhappiness is often viewed as a dysfunction or disease. Their question is “….might happiness also be dysfunctional at times?
Gruber, Mauss and Tamir, conducted a review of current research that examined the potentially ill effects of happiness. They approach the issue with four questions.
Is there a wrong degree of happiness?
Possibly. As with anything in life, excess can become harmful. Especially if that excess denies one the space to simply be themselves and that includes the bad and the ugly.
Is there a wrong time for happiness?
Gruber, Mauss and Tamir suggest in their review that when things are going bad, working with negative emotions, rather than seeking happiness can be just as helpful for pursuing life goals. This follows the thinking of existential psychologists Rollo May and Kirk Schneider, who consider anxiety and depression to the markers or yellow flags of warning that something in one’s life is incongruent. Without those warning signs, how is one supposed to know when it’s time to move on or to shift in life?
Are there wrong ways to pursue happiness?
Victor Frankl stated in his article Self-Transcendence as a Human Phenomenon, “The more one aims at pleasure the more his aim is missed. In other words, the very ‘pursuit of happiness’ is what thwarts it.”
Gruber, Mauss and Tamir share the same perspective. The pursuit of happiness may lead to the paradoxical experience of being incredibly disappointed when one does not achieve the goal of being happy. People can become angry about not being happy. The wrong way is to head towards the goal, the good way is to enjoy the journey.
Are there wrong types of happiness?
Happiness is only beneficial if it has meaning. Clinical psychologist John F. Schmaker argued in his book In Search of Happiness that what Western society defines as happiness is devoid of any real meaning to the individual. Defining happiness as being a state of blissful well-being where there no or very little negative emotion fails to recognize that happiness can be more than just about overall pleasure and satisfaction. Happiness is relative to the person. Recently there a study published in the journal Emotion that showed that positive emotions are culturally relative. In a survey of 600 European, immigrant Asian, and Asian American college students, researchers Leu, Wang and Koo found that positive emotions brought about less depression for European and Asian American students. But, for immigrant Asian students positive emotions brought about negative emotions. Why? Leu and colleagues suggest that in the Western context, happiness is related to positive emotion, in Asian contexts the goal is to balance between the negative and the positive. Solely basking in the positive emotion of happiness is not their intent in life, and as a result doing so leads to more negative emotions.
Is there a wrong degree of happiness?
Can one be too happy? This seems like an odd thought but, consider that those who are viewed as being too sad are considered depressed. The extreme of an emotionally state may not be good for anyone. Too much sadness or happiness can leave someone stuck at one end of their emotional lives.
Paul Wong’s published piece in the latest online issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Reclaiming Positive Psychology: A Meaning-Centered Approach to Sustainable Growth and Radical Empiricism embraces the idea of seeking meaning in life rather than simply pursing happiness. Meaning can be found in any experience good and bad. Seeking meaning in the bad can add to personal growth, possibly more so than just seeking happiness.
All the work that has questioned the constant pursuit of happiness does not negate the positive benefits of being happy. Researchers, scholars and even theologians suggest that life can be hard and even disappointing. We should not see being unhappy as a sickness or something to be avoided at all costs. Rather we can change that pursuit of happiness to one of finding meaning in our lives: the good, the bad and the ugly.