For my 20th Cloud Nine article, I have something you may not expect to hear in YouBeauty’s happiness column: there is a dark side to the pursuit of happiness.
To be clear, happiness is generally very beneficial; for example, happier people are more likely to achieve goals, have success in the workplace, and feel good day to day. However, the experience or pursuit of happiness is not always beneficial.
Here are the top three ways that happiness can backfire1:
1) Excessive happiness.
This may seem counterintuitive, but we can be too happy for our own good.
Extreme happiness is associated with risky behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse and binge eating2. Being too happy is also related to ignoring potential threats and dangers3. For example, if you are in a very positive mood each day, you may blissfully ignore signs of deteriorating physical health.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling happy, but don’t let your joyful state distract you from the warning signs of potential danger.
2) Ignored or suppressed negative emotions.
None of us feels happy all the time (nor would we want to). In many situations, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to feel upset, angry or pessimistic. But many of us convince ourselves that we need to be happy no matter what—that we should be happy all the time.
If that sounds like you, you’re more likely to ignore or suppress your emotions, which, of course, is not healthy.
Negative emotions have a useful purpose. One of them is to signal to others that we are in need of emotional support4. For example, it’s appropriate to feel negative emotions when you are grieving for a lost loved one or going through a painful divorce—it will give others the opportunity to comfort you. This will also help you feel empathetic toward others when they’re experiencing similar hardships.
When you do feel sadness, jealousy or anger, regard each with patience, acceptance and self-love. Don’t distract yourself from them or resent that they’re there. Indeed, how would you know what it feels like to be happy if you have never been sad?
3) The endless pursuit of happiness.
Of course, everyone wants happiness. But for some, the more they pursue happiness, the less they are able to attain it5.
The reason for this is simple: failing to become happier makes you sad. For example, imagine that you are unhappy at your own birthday party, where you would expect to feel happier than usual. You may start to feel disappointed with yourself because you think it’s important to be happy on such an occasion. Of course, that just leaves you depressed about not feeling happy.
If you are in diligent pursuit of happiness, don’t despair. In fact, you can work less hard and get better results. In your daily life, practice activities you enjoy for their own sakes—the happiness will come if you live your life doing things because they feel inherently right, enjoyable or interesting. If an activity isn’t fun or stimulating to you, don’t keep doing it just because you think it might make you happy; move onto something else that you would naturally want to do. Focus on the satisfaction of making a great cake and let happiness be the icing.
Happiness is like food. It helps us thrive and get through the day. However, the American obesity epidemic is strong evidence that food can be harmful if we eat too much or too much of the wrong foods. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with happiness—unless pursuing it prevents you from living a full life.
Be wise in your pursuit of happiness; your journey can be an efficient hike through the woods or a march in endless circles, miles from the beaten path. I think you’ll prefer the hike.
1Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222- 233.
2Martin, L. R., Friedman, H. S., Tucker, J. S., Tomlinson-Keasey, C., Criqui, M. H., & Schwartz, J. E. (2002). A life course perspective on childhood cheerfulness and its relation to mortality risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1155–1165.
3Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
4Smith, C. A., & Lazarus, R. S. (1993). Appraisal components, correlational themes, and the emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 7, 233–269.
5Kesebir, P., & Diener, E. (2008). In pursuit of happiness: Empirical answers to philosophical questions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 117–125.
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