In our everyday life, we often see people preaching that we should strive for happiness. The notion that happiness can be dysfunctional is an intriguing and less commonly explored idea.

While the problematic nature of unhappiness has long been recognized in the field of psychology, the potential downsides of happiness are worth considering as well.

Happiness, like any emotional state, exists on a spectrum. At first glance, the notion that happiness could be dysfunctional might seem counterintuitive, given the strong societal emphasis on pursuing and maximizing happiness.

The motivational speakers, life coaches, and self-help resources can suggest a prevailing view that happiness is an inherently desirable state. After all, happiness is associated with a host of positive outcomes, including improved physical health, stronger social bonds, and greater life satisfaction.

The adaptive value of emotions like happiness depends heavily on the degree, timing, and context in which they are experienced. Building on this notion, we can explore three boundary conditions and scenarios in this article where happiness might become maladaptive or dysfunctional.

Reduced Threat Detection with Heightened Happiness

Emotions play a key role in how people process information and perceive their environment. Different emotional states orient individuals’ attention to distinct goal-relevant features.

Positive emotions like excitement bias attention towards potential rewards and resources, allowing the person to capitalize on opportunities. In contrast, negative emotions like fear focus attention on potential threats, enabling the individual to swiftly detect and respond to dangers.

This differential attentional focus implies that a person in a happy state may be slower to detect serious threats compared to someone experiencing fear. In time-sensitive situations requiring rapid threat detection, such as a vehicle speeding out of control, the lack of fear could prove harmful, as the happy individual may not respond quickly enough to avoid an accident. (Ford et al., 2010; Mogg & Bradley, 1999).

While positive emotions like happiness are generally beneficial, there may be circumstances where negative emotional states are more advantageous in shaping information processing and environmental perception.

Excessive Happiness can lead to Potential Health Risks

Researchers generally concur with the idea that happiness, when experienced at an extreme level of intensity, may not convey additional benefits and could even lead to negative outcomes (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2009; Oishi et al., 2006).

Recent empirical studies in healthy populations have provided support for these claims. Meta-analytic data suggest that at very high intensities of happiness, people may experience no psychological or health gains and sometimes even incur costs. For instance, while moderate levels of positive emotions can enhance creativity, extremely high levels do not provide further benefits (Davis, 2008).

In terms of physical health, when experiencing very high degrees of positive emotion, some individuals may be inclined to engage in riskier behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, binge eating, and drug use (Cyders & Smith, 2008; L.R. Martin et al., 2002).

Laborious Striving For Happiness can lead to more Unhappiness

A key feature of goal pursuit is that the outcome of one’s evaluation can sometimes be incompatible with the goal itself. In the case of happiness, this may lead to paradoxical effects.

The reasoning is as follows: People who highly value happiness tend to set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain. As a result, they may feel disappointed and discontent about how they actually feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they strive for it.

This counterintuitive hypothesis suggests that the very act of pursuing happiness ardently can undermine one’s ability to achieve it.

An experiment described in a chapter by Schooler and colleagues (2003) provides data consistent with the notion that the pursuit of happiness may ultimately cause decreased happiness. This suggests a potential downside to an excessive focus on attaining happiness as a primary goal. Therefore, encouragement of a mindset solely focused on maximizing happiness, as often advocated in “self-help” books, may be counterproductive. This is because such encouragement can increase the extent to which individuals value happiness as the ultimate goal. Paradoxically, this increased emphasis on happiness may make individuals more vulnerable to experiencing the paradoxical effects.

It’s important to note that the present findings do not suggest that valuing happiness is always self-defeating. In fact, valuing happiness could lead to greater well-being if people are given the right tools and strategies to effectively pursue it. For instance, developing strong emotion-regulation abilities (Gilbert, 2006; Lyubomirsky, 2008; Troy et al., 2010) may allow people to better navigate the process of pursuing happiness. Additionally, defining happiness more broadly than just one’s personal emotional state, could also help mitigate the paradoxical effects.

Happiness, much like other essential elements of the human experience, exists on a spectrum. While overwhelmingly positive in moderation, extreme or misplaced happiness can actually compromise wellbeing and optimal functioning. Rather than single-mindedly pursuing maximal happiness, a more nuanced approach that accounts for situational demands is needed. By recognizing the boundary conditions of happiness, we can develop a more holistic understanding of psychological health and how to cultivate it effectively.

References used

At Az1Network, we ensure that informative articles of sensitive nature or related to mental health have used information from credible sources. For this particular article, we have taken references from the below sources.

  1. Ford, B.Q., Tamir, M., Brunye, T.T., Shirer, W.R., Mahoney, C.R., & Taylor, H.A. (2010). Keeping your eyes on the prize: Anger and visual attention to threats and rewards. Psychological Science, 21, 1098–1105
  2. Mogg, K., & Bradley, B.P. (1999). Selective attention and anxiety: A cognitive-motivational perspective. In T. Dalgleish & M. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotion (pp. 145–170). New York: Wiley
  3. Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2009). Happiness: Unlocking the secrets of psychological wealth. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2006). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346–360.
  5. Davis, M.A. (2008). Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 108, 25–38.
  6. Cyders, M.A., & Smith, G.T. (2008). Emotion-based dispositions to rash action: Positive and negative urgency. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 807–828.
  7. Martin, L.R., Friedman, H.S., Tucker, J.S., Tomlinson-Keasey, C., Criqui, M.H., & Schwartz, J.E. (2002). A life course perspective on childhood cheerfulness and its relation to mortality risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1155–1165.
  8. Schooler, J. W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). The pursuit and assessment of happiness may be self-defeating. In J. Carrillo & I. Brocas (Eds.), The psychology of economic decisions (pp. 41–70). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  9. Gilbert, D. T. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Knopf
  10. Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A practical approach to getting the life you want. London: Sphere.
  11. Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: Cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion, 10, 783–795.