I can safely say that I think few of us struggle with having too much happiness. We turn to the happiness gurus to help us increase our happiness for a reason — who wouldn’t want to be happier? Pretty much all of us do.
For many of us, the pursuit of happiness is not only something we’ve grown up on, it’s something we’ve come to expect as a right. I mean, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence!
But like everything in life, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. This includes the pursuit of happiness. Too much happiness can be just as detrimental in your life as not having enough.
That’s the finding anyway of Gruber and her colleagues (2011), in a recent review of the happiness research. Let’s see what they had to say.
Too Much Happiness
You can simply have too much happiness, the researchers found:
For instance, whereas moderate levels of positive emotions engender more creativity, high levels of positive emotions do not. Furthermore, people with extremely high positive-to-negative emotion ratios (i.e., >5:1) exhibit more rigid behavioral repertoires.
With respect to physical health, a high degree of parent- and teacher-rated “cheerfulness” is prospectively associated with a greater mortality risk. Furthermore, when experiencing very high degrees of positive emotion, some individuals are inclined to engage in riskier behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, binge eating, and drug use.
Their conclusion? “A higher degree of happiness is not always better and may actually be associated with undesirable and unintended outcomes when it exceeds a certain threshold.”
The researchers then move on to make a false comparison of the costs of too intense positive emotion, basically equating the state of mania with “too much happiness.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with this analogy, since happiness is a much broader concept while mania describes a specific state that may or may not coincide with happiness. People experiencing mania may appear “happy,” but are sometimes genuinely unhappy. And mania includes symptoms that go beyond simply experiencing a positive mood.
Once you’ve made the comparison, though, it’s easy to run through all the problems someone in a manic state may experience, and all the research demonstrating the difficulties faced by people experiencing mania.
Is Happiness Always Appropriate?
Just as you may experience too intense or too much happiness, the researchers suggest that there may be times when feeling happy is just not right. We experience specific emotional states that may serve a purpose when tied to what’s going on around us. Being a bit fearful and attentive during a highly-charged and important business meeting ensures a person can respond in a quick and meaningful manner.
A cheerful person, the researchers suggest, “may be slower than a fearful person to detect a potential threat in the environment.” It may also be more difficult to process relevant and important information in the environment when in a positive emotional state as opposed to a negative one.
Some studies suggest that certain positive emotions lead people to rely more on highly accessible cognitions, such as beliefs, expectations, and stereotypes. For instance, participants who underwent a positive mood induction were more likely than others to judge a member of a stereotyped social group, but not other suspects, as guilty of a crime.
By contrast, some data suggest that negative emotions tend to lead to more systematic processing. For example, participants in a positive mood produced significantly less persuasive arguments, whereas those in a negative mood produced significantly more persuasive arguments, compared with those in a neutral mood condition. This finding may be, in part, because positive emotions arise in a safe environment where resources can be devoted to new ventures, whereas negative emotions arise in an environment where resources must be devoted to dealing with existing problems
The researchers also note that our emotions act as signals to others in our social environment. If you’re angry, it tells others something important — that you feel something happened that was unfair to you, your situation or someone you care about.
But if you’re happy all the time, then others won’t be able to react accordingly. For instance, if you “put on a happy face” after you found out the grandmother you were closest to just passed away, you may not receive any type of condolences or acknowledgment of the grief you’re experiencing on the inside.
Expressions of positive emotions signal to others that the person perceives the environment and other people in it as safe and favorable. Given the information they provide, emotions instigate specific reactions from others and can set the course of social interactions.
Research on emotions in negotiations, for example, has shown that emotional expressions can change negotiation outcomes. In particular, when the negotiating person is of high status, expressing anger leads to greater concessions from others, whereas expressions of positive emotions do not.
Are There Wrong Ways to Pursue Happiness?
Yes. It appears the very pursuit of happiness as an end-goal of itself may be a flawed strategy:
A particular feature of human goal pursuit might help explain this peculiar paradox. The goals people value determine not only what people want to achieve but also the standards against which they evaluate their achievements. For instance, people who highly value academic achievement will be disappointed when they fall short of their high standards. In the case of academic achievement, this feature may not matter for achieving the goal at hand because disappointment does not interfere with the pursuit of academic goals.
However, in the case of happiness, this feature of goal pursuit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one’s evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with achieving one’s goal (i.e., happiness). This reasoning leads to the prediction that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely it is that they will become disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.
Are There Wrong Types of Happiness?
Depending upon your situation, yes. The researchers identified two types of happiness that may actually hurt us more than they help — happiness that impairs social functioning and happiness that isn’t in alignment with the culture we’re in.
Hubristic pride — when we boast or gloat without adequate merit — is one such example. The researchers noted that the research they reviewed suggested that it is “associated with negative social consequences, such as aggressiveness toward others and antisocial behavior.”
Your happiness type has to fit in with your cultural values as well. Because if it doesn’t, you may find yourself the odd man (or woman) out:
First, cultures vary with regard to how much they value high-arousal versus low-arousal positive states. For example, Tsai, Knutson, and Fung (2006) demonstrated that in Chinese and Chinese–American compared with European–American culture, low-arousal positive states (e.g., contentment) are more highly valued than high-arousal positive states (e.g., excitement). […]
A second relevant dimension along which cultures vary is social engagement. For instance, Japanese culture tends to more highly value socially engaged emotions, such as friendly feelings or guilt, whereas U.S. American culture tends to more highly value socially disengaged emotions, such as pride or anger.
We all want more happiness in our lives, but as this review suggests, there may be times where you can have too much of a good thing. Happiness in just the right amounts, at the right times, pursuing it in the right ways and in the right contexts is important to getting to the state of Happiness. Because when done right, it can serve an adaptive and healthy purpose in furthering our lives.
Gruber, 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. doi: 10.1177/1745691611406927