Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
As psychologists who frequently travel for work, how we describe our careers to strangers in the airline seats next to us can determine the tone of the subsequent conversation for hours to come. On the few occasions we actually risk the truth and own up to the fact that we’re not just general psychologists but that we actually study happiness for a living, we can be guaranteed a near-desperate response: “What can I do to be happier?” There’s a clear and nearly universal assumption that happiness is desirable and, being so metaphorically shiny, we should all be trying to stockpile it. As experts in the field, we know the surprising truth.
Let’s pause for a second and explain what we mean by this thing called happiness. To begin with, happiness—at some level—has to be a feeling. Whether you call it joy, enthusiasm, or contentment, the basic truth remains: happiness is, at least in part, emotional, and is therefore experienced subjectively by the individual. When we talk about a happy person, we’re describing someone who lives through frequent positive emotions and infrequent negative emotions.
Happiness is a state of mind and, as such, can be measured, studied, and enhanced. You do this informally every day when you notice something about your spouse and ask, “What’s wrong?” or when you ask your best friend, “How was your trip to Italy?” Scientists take this a step further by having people answer these same kinds of questions using a numbered scale. The astute reader might wonder whether such scales can truly be trusted. Researchers are trained not to rely on these self-reports alone, but also to ask friends and family members to rate target individuals. Occasionally, we also use memory measures, reaction-time computer tests, daily diaries, and even biological measures such as brain scans and saliva cortisol samples. Taken together, these methods—even just a few of them—paint a reasonable portrait of a person’s happiness.
The current fever for happiness is spurred on, in part, by a growing body of research suggesting that happiness doesn’t just feel good but actually does good things for you. In a review of 225 academic papers on happiness, for instance, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that feeling upbeat is linked to all sorts of real-life benefits. People who feel frequent positivity engage in healthier behaviors such as wearing seat belts, make more money, have happier marriages, receive better customer and supervisor evaluations at work, are more generous, and end up being promoted more often by bosses.
Then there’s the most compelling data of all: happiness is causally related to health, meaning that being happy actually makes you healthier. While happiness might not cure cancer, it does seem to promote better immune system function.
The research on the overall benefits of happiness is growing steadily. One common theory holds that happiness is humanity’s natural resting state. Happy people are more likely to be social, exploratory, inventive, and healthy. It’s a short logical jump from there to the idea that happiness provides an evolutionary advantage. It’s no wonder that happiness is often touted as a panacea.
Has Happiness Been Taken Too Far?
The tendency is to overlook the fact that happiness itself is sometimes harmful. When most of us hear the phrase positive emotions, we think of mental states that feel pleasurable and attract other people. When we hear negative emotions, we think of unpleasant, unproductive states that repel other people. After all, who wants to eat lunch with a curmudgeon? But positive emotions and thoughts aren’t always useful. Here are several often overlooked research results about a happy mindset that sound a warning.
Your Happiness Can Interfere with Your Success. Psychologist Shigehiro Oishi and his international collaborators collected current dictionary definitions of happiness in 30 countries. They found that in 24 of those countries, happiness was deemed to be strongly related to fate, fortune, or luck. Notably, the United States ended up being part of the minority, a quirky country where happiness is viewed as a controllable, attainable state of mind. In fact, American collective views on happiness mirror our general attitudes about life: if only we plan well and work hard, we can achieve the health, body, spouse, work, money, and recreation we desire. These views on happiness mirror our general take on life so closely that we often conflate happiness with success. This makes the notion that happiness can interfere with success particularly jarring for Americans, and yet a growing body of research suggests that happiness has some quantifiable drawbacks.
Happy people are less persuasive. Interestingly, attention to detail is the type of thinking that characterizes unhappy moods. Happy people, by contrast, are more likely to overlook details in favor of the big picture—what we refer to as a superficial processing style. Extrapolating from this principle, unhappy people—with their tendency to pay more attention to and process concrete situational details—should generate more persuasive messages compared to the superficial, abstract approach of happy folks. Research shows this is exactly the case.
Happy people can be too trusting. Trust is difficult to establish with new people, given that there is no X-ray or CAT scan to gauge a person’s underlying motivations, or to accurately predict how someone will treat you in the future. We must rely instead on our hunches regarding the character and honesty of the people with whom we come in contact. Joseph Forgas and his fellow Australian researchers wanted to determine how accurate happy people—with their more superficial processing style—are at detecting deceit, which requires paying close attention to facial expressions, eye movements, and the specific language people use. Forgas and his colleagues found that when people are happy, they’re able to detect whether someone is lying only 49 percent of the time, slightly worse than chance. When people were experimentally put into an unhappy, sad mood, they ended up being much more successful, accurately detecting liars 62 percent of the time. Think about this in the real world. Imagine being able to boost your ability to judge the honesty of job applicants by 13 percent. Imagine being able to help resolve conflicts between adversaries, with their competing versions of the truth, by 13 percent. This is what happens when we stop holding rigidly to the idea that positivity must prevail as often as possible.
The Pursuit of Happiness Often Backfires, Ending in Unhappiness. Researchers have found that when you enter into a situation with the goal of becoming happier, you actually make that less likely to occur. To test this, Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein randomly gave participants one of four sets of instructions before listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:
1. Try to make yourself as happy as possible when listening.
2. Listen as you normally do.
3. As you listen, move a dial to indicate how happy you feel and how your mood changes.
4. Try to make yourself as happy as possible and keep tabs on how your happiness ebbs and flows while listening (a combination of instructions 1 and 3).
Compared with adults using music as a tactic to become happier (instruction 1), adults instructed to just listen (instruction 2) ended up 4.5 times happier with Stravinsky’s pleasant violins, a 450 percent better return on their investment. Clearly, the strategy of trying to use music as a means to an end backfired. Even more dramatic, people who tried to use music to become happier while also tracking how well they met their happiness goal felt 7.5 times worse than people just listening to the music. This finding is important because conventional wisdom regarding the pursuit of happiness tells us that people should understand what brings them happiness, create goals that will help with this overarching aim to be happy, and then work toward these goals, tracking the effort put in and progress made. We now have scientific evidence suggesting that this single-minded pursuit of happiness is akin to trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathtub. The more you reach through the water, the more the soap slips away, and the more difficult it is to lay a hand on.
Sometimes People Want to Feel Bad. Have you ever watched a person at the customer-service desk report a missing piece of luggage? Lost luggage, like broken merchandise and ill-fitting clothing, requires us to expend effort—often frustrating effort—and to advocate for ourselves. Despite the nearly universal feeling of hassle that comes with being separated from your suitcase, many people take the nice-guy approach: they offer the service representative a conspiratorial smile and a wink and say, “Hey, I know you didn’t lose my luggage. You just work here.” We are, after all, civilized. We can keep our cool and avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. Yet the people who “own” their feelings of frustration and can effectively communicate their anger about matters like lost luggage are often highly effective advocates. They persevere longer and are more likely to get customer service agents to use their position to override protocols and step up extra efforts to find the missing bags. This isn’t hypothetical. One study shows that a little anger is a superior strategy when it comes to effectively returning a purchased item. The reasons for this probably change depending on who’s having the conversation and the amount of money and time involved. But you can bet that anger works because the other person feels your discomfort.
A Playbook for Mild Unhappiness
Don’t be mistaken, we are fully aware of the robust and widely confirmed findings on the benefits of positive emotions, positive thoughts, and happiness. But what’s largely untapped is the potential we can draw from the fact that under certain predictable circumstances, being mildly unhappy seems to be better than being happy. This includes tasks that require detail-oriented, systematic, or analytical thinking, which counts for much of what we do at home (think of budgeting and designing weekend plans) and work (think of completing administrative paperwork and trying to determine trends and patterns from mounds of information). The key word is mildly, for serious unhappiness, in the form of chronic loneliness and emotional disorders, impairs our ability to function, and in the worst-case scenario leads to thoughts of death and suicidal acts. Here, we’re not talking about emotional problems and disorders as hidden gifts.
Trying desperately to seek the positive and avoid the negative is not only a wasteful errand, it will also lead you to fail at what you desire most. The situationally aware person is ready to take advantage of fortuitous opportunities when they arise and prepared to tilt the expression of their thoughts and feelings toward happiness or unhappiness as appropriate. To claim the benefits of unhappy states described here, you must find, tolerate, and appreciate them.
This blog is excerpted from "The Downside of Happiness" by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The full version is available in the September/October 2014 issue, There and Not There: Growing Up in an Age of Distraction.
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