The Downside of Happiness

The Downside of Happiness

Beware of What You Wish For

September/October 2014

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. For instance, the mere mention that we’re psychologists prompts some people to open a book, don headphones, or pretend to fall asleep. In other cases, our expertise in mental matters seems to encourage our seatmates to unburden themselves. We can spend hours listening to the details of a failing marriage or a pet theory of motivation. Even pretending to be asleep doesn’t seem to dissuade our seatmates from asking us to interpret their dreams. 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. When lay people are asked to define happiness, they often conflate potential causes of happiness with happiness itself. They say things like “happiness is family” or “happiness is being grateful.” Although family and gratitude are undoubtedly important, they’re fairly poor descriptions of what happiness itself…

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