If you’ve been skeptical about the recent obsession with being happy and widespread works of positive psychology, there are scientific reasons that may actually justify your skepticism.
A growing number of scientific studies are finding that too much happiness (and the pursuit of happiness itself) can be harmful.
Yep, happiness can hurt you.
In 2012, June Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, and director of the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory, wrote about some of the studies out at the time in the area of "the dark side of happiness" on her Greater Good blog:
“Researchers are just starting to seriously explore these questions,” she said, “with good reason: By recognizing the potential pitfalls of happiness, we enable ourselves to understand it more deeply and we learn to better promote healthier and more balanced lives."
Potential pitfalls of happiness
According to Gruber and her colleagues Iris Mauss and Maya Tamir, there are some key pitfalls of happiness we should all be aware of:
1. Too much happiness can make you less creative.
Gruber and her colleagues cite a 2008 study that showed that when people experience intense amounts of happiness, they lose their creativity boost. Another study cited by the researchers showed that too much positivity makes people unable to face new challenges.
2. Too much happiness can make you less safe.
Furthermore, Gruber at el note that happiness makes us less inhibited to take new risks. This low inhibition to risk often makes us ignore warning signs and encourages us to engage in such risky behaviors as "excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual promiscuity and drug use."
3. Too much happiness can make you feel like your goals are fulfilled.
This feeling tends to make people less competitive.
4. Too much happiness can lead to feelings of pride.
When you are proud, it can lead to "negative social outcomes, such as aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even an increased risk of mood disorders such as mania." In other words, happiness can make it more difficult for you to connect with other people.
5. Pursuing happiness can, ironically, make you unhappy.
The more you pursue happiness, the less likely you are able to obtain it. In the pursuit of happiness, standards of happiness become higher and that makes disappointment more likely.
Overall, Gruber and colleagues observed that happiness is not suited to every situation, and that not all types of happiness are good for you.
Newer studies continue to show that good moods are fine, but aren’t in tandem with what boosts most workers' creativity.
Good moods are fine, but don’t necessarily boost creativity.
Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist and professor of Psychology at Yale University School of Medicine, notes that intense emotional pressure, good or bad, can cause dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be involved in creativity. To maintain optimal brain function for creativity, she says, brain science shows mood management is key—not happiness or purposefully-generated-stress.
Emma Seppala, Science Director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism, and author of The Happiness Track, agrees with Arnsten. Seppala suggests that you shouldn’t live in an emotional maelstrom for creativity’s sake.
“High-intensity positive emotions can sometimes be just as taxing as high negative emotions. Creativity does not so much happen when we are stressed and highly emotional,” Seppala told Quartz.
So, how can you attain a healthy dose of happiness, promote creativity and lead a more balanced life?
Ways to find "healthy happiness" and promote creativity
Gruber says there are at least four recommended ways to find "healthy happiness," promote creativity and live a more balanced life:
- Experience the right amount of happiness: Too little happiness is just as problematic as too much, she says.
- Be mindful of when and where you experience happiness: Happiness has a time and a place, and one must be mindful about the context or situation in which one experiences happiness.
- Strike emotional balance: One cannot experience happiness at the cost or expense of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger or guilt. These are all part of a complex recipe for emotional health and help us attain a more grounded perspective. Emotional balance is crucial.
- Pursue happiness for the right reasons: Too much focus on striving for happiness as an end in itself can actually be self-defeating.
“Rather than trying to zealously find happiness, we should work to build acceptance of our current emotional state, whatever it may be. True happiness, it seems, comes from fostering kindness toward others—and toward yourself,” Gruber concludes.