Research shows that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
A few days ago, I had a Zoom meeting with a colleague. Making small talk, I greeted her with the customary, “Hi! How are you?” Fully expecting an answer like “good” or “fine,” I was shocked when she answered the question honestly. “Stressed out and anxious,” she told me. “But at least I’m keeping busy!” Although I genuinely care about my colleague, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the forthrightness of her answer. “Isn’t she supposed to just say ‘good’ or ‘fine?’” I thought.
My slight discomfort at her answer is influenced by the strong push in American society to be—or at least act—happy. Convenience store clerks remind us to “Have a nice day!” when we depart their company. Advertisements depict images of smiling people, as if buying a new toaster or switching washing machine detergents were really what life was about. Even if you’re not familiar with most songs from past decades, chances are you know The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” But the world doesn’t look so wonderful lately. Whether we’re talking about the looming backdrop of coronavirus or the tragic killing of George Floyd, it’s unreasonable to expect that people will be happy all the time. In fact, contrary to our culture’s bias, it’s normal and even healthy to experience everything from anxiety and fear to loneliness and grief.
Positive psychology, a field born about 25 years ago, is often accused of perpetuating the myth that a good life is all about being happy. Within the past couple of decades, countless books—some of them quite good—with titles like The How of Happiness and The Happiness Advantage have hit bookshelves. But not everything “positive” makes us happy. In fact, Martin Seligman, often credited with founding positive psychology, defined the field as the study of optimal human functioning, not necessarily only the study of happiness. And, in order to function optimally in our lives, it’s not a great idea to be in a state of bliss all the time. Here are two reasons why.
1. Happiness and Meaning Are Not the Same Thing
Take a moment to consider what experiences, actions, and relationships make your life worth living. If you’re like most people, your answers will fall into two general categories, what psychologists call “hedonic” and “eudaimonic.” Hedonic experiences are all about pleasure: seeing a beautiful sunrise, eating a delectable slice of cake, or having great sex. Eudaimonic experiences, on the other hand, are about personal meaning and purpose: living according to our values, completing an important life project, or making a difference in the world in some way.
The reason this distinction is important is that sometimes the things that are most meaningful to us aren’t pleasurable, whether we’re talking about working hard, keeping our promises even when inconvenient, being honest when we’ve made a mistake, or forgiving someone we love. For years, I worked as a psychotherapist in a hospice, helping dying people come to terms with how to live the last weeks or months of their lives. While I can’t say the job was pleasurable, I can definitely say it was the most meaningful work of my life. On the flip side, many pleasurable experiences are not actually meaningful. Although binge-watching every episode of Survivor or eating an entire tub of ice cream may make us happy, it’s hard to argue that these activities contribute to our life being truly “good.”
2. Negative Emotions Can Make Life Better
Although most of us might prefer to feel happy all the time, research shows that negative feelings, while unpleasant, can sometimes be good for us. Anxiety and fear can protect us against potential threats. Guilt can motivate us to make amends when we’ve done something wrong, allowing us to preserve our most meaningful relationships. Even anger can be useful. In one study, experimenters asked participants to play the role of a seller, negotiating with a buyer. Their task was to sell a batch of mobile phones to the “buyer” (whom they believed was another participant like themselves, but was actually an actor) at the highest price possible. The better the deal they were able to strike, the greater the reward they would receive in the real world at the end of the experiment. Some participants were led to believe that the buyer was growing angry with them, whereas others were led to believe that the buyer felt happy. The results were clear: Participants who thought they were dealing with an angry buyer offered their cell phones at more than a 30 percent discount over participants who thought they were dealing with a happy buyer. Remember that the next time you need to call your cable or cell phone provider to dispute an unfair bill.
Of course, there’s a difference between feeling an emotion like anger and acting violently. There’s also a big difference between experiencing negative emotions in healthy, manageable amounts and being completely overtaken by them. Like most things in life, virtually any emotion is best in moderation. But, as this and other studies show, just the right amount of certain negative emotions, acted on in effective ways, can be useful. Political movements that change the world can be fueled by anger, while urges to change our life for the better can be fueled by sadness or regret.
Perhaps the most important lesson in all this research is that living a good life isn’t just about being happy. It’s about being authentically who we are, including pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, love and conflict. If we felt happy all the time, we might end up missing opportunities to improve ourselves, fight for what we believe in, or engage in some of the most meaningful endeavors of our lives.
My colleague who said she was feeling “stressed out and anxious” is a physician taking care of patients with COVID-19. Every day, she faces gut-wrenching medical decisions and fear of contracting the coronavirus. But she also told me that, despite her worry, she feels that what she is doing brings purpose to her life: “Sometimes the hardest experiences are also the most important,” she told me. “I’ll be happy when it’s over, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
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