The Challenge: We want to be happy all the time and want to avoid feeling bad.
The Science: Feeling down ain’t so bad! There’s an upside to negative emotions!
The Solution: With increased awareness, both good and bad feelings can improve your life.
I think it’s safe to say that we all generally want the same thing. To be happy. And why wouldn’t we? Positive emotions motivate us to pursue important goals, savor experiences, buffer ourselves against stress, and maintain vital social bonds. But can these positive emotions also be a source of dysfunction? Can feeling good sometimes be bad?
Why we want to be happy
Aristotle said that: “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” And for good reason.
Scientists are only now beginning to catch up to Aristotle’s early observations about the human condition. Recent findings point to the benefits of positive feelings: they motivate us to pursue goals, broaden our scope of attention, buffer against the effects of stress, and even stave off illness. Further benefits of experiencing and promoting feelings centered on the well-being of others, such as compassion and gratitude, demonstrate robust benefits for our social relationships and even neural health.
So it seems, for all intents and purposes, we should want to feel happiness and its related varieties of positivity, correct? Not so fast.
Too much of a good thing?
Although critical, this wave of interest in positive emotions like happiness is not the only side of the story. A second side to understanding the science of happiness has emerged. Positive feelings may not always be good for us. For example, experiencing happiness out of balance or in an extreme degree. Heightened positive feelings may lead us to feel less inhibited and more likely to explore new possibilities and take risks.
One study found that healthy adults who reported experiencing heightened positive emotion engaged in greater risk-taking behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, and unsafe sexual activity (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011). So it seems that happiness is best experienced in moderation – not too little, but also not too much.
Another line of work suggests that happiness—and related positive emotions—may not be suited to every situation. Our emotions serve important functions. Anger mobilizes us to overcome obstacles; fear alerts us to threats, and sadness signals loss. Happiness helps us pursue and attain important goals, as well as facilitates cooperative and collaborative behaviors.
Furthermore, individuals who self-report happiness in inappropriate contexts – such as viewing sad images, including death, or disgusting images, including scenes of contamination – are at greater risk for the subsequent development of mood disorders (Gruber et al., 2008). In sum, happiness has a time and a place and is not always suited for every situation.
The downside to the pursuit of happiness
When considering this other “darker” side of happiness, it is also important not to forget to focus on the many ways that we can cultivate or nurture healthy, positive emotionality in our lives. Recent scientific discoveries have found that happiness should not always be desired. In fact, striving for happiness may actually cause more harm than good.
This paradoxical effect is explained by psychologist Iris Mauss, who showed that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely they will set a high standard for happiness that will result in disappointment when it is not met (Mauss et al., 2011; 2012). These findings demonstrate that the pursuit of happiness can actually have negative effects on individual well-being.
So, where does this leave us?
In some ways, these findings are not so surprising after all. We know that there are usually two sides to every story for most experiences in life. By opening ourselves to seeing another potential side of happiness – and understanding it has both benefits and, at times, negative consequences (Gruber & Moskowitz, 2014)– we position ourselves to understand it more deeply and learn how to harness it effectively to promote healthier and more balanced lives. Indeed, the field is now ripe to consider not just the benefits but also the costs of positive emotion.