Treating Happiness as a Metric Rather than a Goal

Does Mild Unhappiness Make Us More Focused and Successful?

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

By Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

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.

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.

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. In fact, happiness seems so valuable that it’s sometimes difficult to imagine that it has any downsides.

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. In three studies, judges rated the quality of unhappy people’s arguments as approximately 25 percent more impressive and 20 percent more concrete than those made by happy folks.

Happy people can be too trusting. 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, 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. We’re not suggesting that you meditate on the suffering of victims of natural disasters to make yourself sad. We’re suggesting, instead, that you honor the emotions that arise in you naturally at key decision points.

If Happiness Is So Great, Why Aren’t We Better at It?

If happiness is so beneficial, and if people frequently experience it (they report they do between 60 and 80 percent of the time), then why aren’t we all better at being happy? Why do we move to a bigger house with the huge lawn to play soccer with the kids and end up feeling less happy because it now requires an extra 20 minutes to visit our closest friends? Why do parents schedule their kids for afterschool theater practice and math tutoring, knowing that everyone will feel rushed, bicker, and argue more often? It turns out that we succumb to a variety of common biases that interfere with our ability to effectively choose what will make us happy. Even worse, these biases are often invisible to us.
Craving something, whether it’s a new job, a new toy, or a jelly donut, is often psychologically, and sometimes physically, arousing. We tend to want things really badly. Once we get them, however, we stop revving so high, emotionally speaking. We like whatever it is well enough, but not nearly as much as we once wanted it. In fact, the long meetings, tough commute, and nasty office politics at the new job may not be likable at all, despite the intensity of the craving to be offered the job in the first place. In this way, we often function a little bit like drug addicts, making purchases and other life choices based on a strong desire, without the ability or motive to really see the long-term effects. Taken together in the real world, these biases lead to billions of dollars annually in misspent money and impulsive decisions, none of which yield the happiness we expect.

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. In fact, we’ve contributed to the literature. 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).

Peter Drucker once quipped, “Never mind your happiness; do your duty.” Based on the latest science, we offer a similar recommendation: that happy thoughts and feelings be viewed as a thermostat, a metric that offers insight into how things are going. When moving the thermostat becomes the objective of life, activities lose their intrinsic appeal and performance is compromised. If you want to be happy, get out of your head and into your life. 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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Illustration © Randy Verougstraete/

Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: addiction | happiness | happy | health | how to be happy | success | trust

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