The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, but according to a new study, it can backfire and make some people feel worse.
Authors of the review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, said that happiness shouldn’t be thought of as a universally good thing.
According to June Gruber of Yale University, who co- wrote the article with Iris Mauss of the University of Denver and Maya Tamir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, often people may end up worse off than when they started. And although the advice in the self-help literature on happiness is not necessarily bad, doing things with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy lead to disappointment and decreased happiness.
For example, one study by Mauss and colleagues found that people who read a newspaper article extolling the value of happiness felt worse after watching a happy film than people who read a newspaper article that didn’t mention happiness —presumably because they were disappointed they didn’t feel happier.
Too much happiness may also be a problem. One study followed children from the 1920s to old age and found that those who died younger were rated as highly cheerful by their teachers.
Extreme perceptions of happiness has been found by researchers to be unrealistic as scientists find people often do not think as creatively and tend to take more risks. For example, people who have mania, such as in bipolar disorder, have an excess degree of positive emotions that can lead them to risky behavior like substance abuse, driving too fast, or spending their life savings.
But even for people who don’t have a psychiatric disorder, “too high of a degree of happiness can be bad,” Gruber said. Inappropriate happiness also occurs in people with mania, such as feeling happy when you see someone crying over the loss of a loved one or when you hear a friend was injured in a car crash.
Happiness also can mean being short on negative emotions—which have their place in life as well. Fear can keep you from taking unnecessary risks; guilt can help remind you to behave well toward others.
So what is a person to do if they want to be happy?
“The strongest predictor of happiness is not money, or external recognition through success or fame,” Gruber said. “It’s having meaningful social relationships.”
That means the best way to increase your happiness is to stop worrying about being happy and instead divert your energy to nurturing the social bonds you have with other people.
“If there’s one thing you’re going to focus on, focus on that. Let all the rest come as it will.”