Monday, May 28, 2012

The Downsides of Trying Too Hard to Be Happy (Part II)

“It’s really frightening.  People need to read a book on how to be happy? It’s completely an American thing.  Can you imagine people in Naples sitting on a bus or in a trattoria reading a book on happiness?                                                                                                     Charles Simic

“Melancholia pushes against the easy ‘either/or’ of the status quo. It thrives in unexplored ground between oppositions, in the ‘both/and.’”                                                     Eric G. Wilson

“Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea.  Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.”                                                        Henri Frederic Amiel

Americans are obsessed with happiness.  I have read at last count 16 books on the subject; if you prefer magazine articles to books, take a look at the cover stories of Time, Oprah, and the Economist. I recently published a four part blog with my reactions to an art exhibit titled Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show ( Governments in places as diverse as the UK and Bhutan are trying to pass laws to make their citizens happier, and economists are creating happiness indexes to complement the gross domestic product.   Motivational speakers and therapists are telling us how to become happier and how to raise happy children.  In Part I of this blog I tried to understand why this movement, which I find fascinating and useful, is also troubling.

Recent research has revealed that too much happiness can be detrimental.  In Mark Alan Davis’s 2008 meta-analysis of the relationship between mood and creativity, intense amounts of happiness were correlated with decreased creativity.  Barbara Fredrickson has studied how too much positive emotion makes research subjects inflexible in the face of new challenges.  An older study by Howard S. Friedman found that highly cheerful school-aged children had a greater risk of mortality in adulthood; people who are too happy disregard threats and engage in risky behavior like excessive alcohol drinking, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use.  (

Shigehiro Oishi studied people over several decades of life and found that the happiest individuals had lower levels of income, academic achievement, job satisfaction, and political participation than those who reported only moderate happiness in early life.  In the same study, the happiest research subjects had more close friends, were more likely to be married, and more likely to volunteer in their community.  Oishi concludes, “It is generally difficult to simultaneously have an extremely high level of overall happiness, intimate relationships, and achievements.” (

Oishi’s finding that the happiest individuals do not participate in the political process worries some.  In response to the popular happiness advice, “see life as it is, but focus on the good bits,” one blogger wrote, “we should resist the tendency to shy away from certain difficult questions, and to simply roll over and let our stomachs be tickled in a frenzy of feel-good sentiment.”
If we really care about happiness and well-being, of course we should care about the good bits; but we should care also about the bad bits: about the obscene extent of the global military investment, for example; or about the pervasive problems of poverty and the scandal of the fact that there are people in this country who do not have a roof over their head; about the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor; about the way the very richest and most powerful individuals and institutions across the globe, with the support of our elected or unelected representatives, often act to the detriment of the collective good. (

There is some recent research that supports the conclusion that happiness is not suited to every situation, especially the difficult ones described in the above passage.  Maya Tamir of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Boston College has found that happy people perform worse in a competitive computer game than angry people.  June Gruber of Yale University has found that people who experience happy moods in inappropriate contexts such as watching a film of a young child crying are at greater risk for developing mania.  (

In Part I of this blog we encountered Eric G. Wilson who worries that our current interest in happiness may lead to undervaluing sadness and what he terms melancholia; for Wilson there must be a balance between these two emotions in order to authentically live in the world as it really is.  Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield in The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness into Depressive Disorder ( examine how depression is over-diagnosed in patients who are experiencing normal intense sadness in response to life events. 

On a larger scale, the misdiagnosis of depression creates the impression that Americans are becoming more depressed (an internal condition) rather than suffering greater social problems (an external condition), two problems that call for completely different solutions (medication versus changing social policy). (

Whether striving for happiness is good or bad for you depends on how you define happiness.  Differentiating between “hedonic well-being” and “eudaimonia” might be useful.  Movies, big California cabernets, and Philadelphia Phillies baseball victories all make me happy, and they are probably best understood by the former term.  Aristotle wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia (well being or flourishing) by fulfilling their potential by graduating from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, successfully raising two children, and volunteering at Philabundance.

As Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin, Madison puts it: “Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness.” In Ryff’s research, she has found that individuals who rank high on eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6 and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with lower eudaimonic well-being.  Another study of 950 individuals found that those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to those reporting greater sense of purpose in life.  (

There is a rich religious and literary tradition that concludes that pursuing happiness may be a fool’s errand.  Malcolm Muggeridge stated, “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”  In one study participants who were told to “try to make yourself feel as happy as possible” while they listened to a piece of hedonically ambiguous music reported they felt less positive compared to a control group who received no instructions before hearing the music.  In another study the more people valued happiness the less well-being and the more mental health issues they reported.  In yet another study the more people valued happiness, the lonelier they feel on a daily basis according to their diaries. Other researchers found that leading people to value happiness more resulted in greater loneliness and social disconnect measured by self reports and progesterone levels. (

America’s current obsession with happiness is not without pitfalls and unintended consequences.  Researchers are starting to provide evidence that blindly pursuing happiness for its own sake can result in mixed results at best. 

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