Be happy, but not too happy…

Possible side effects include pneumonia and a sore throat

Talk about glass half empty, according to a review article released this week in Perspectives on Psychological Science too much happiness can be bad for you. The article, entitled ‘A dark side to happiness?’, suggests that you can have too much of a good thing, even if that good thing is the typically positive emotion, happiness.

Happiness has been hitting the headlines repeatedly over the last few months; only a couple of weeks ago did scientists announce the discovery of a ‘happiness gene’. We Brits have long been obsessed with happiness (or our lack of it) and it’s hardly surprising that, as we begin to emerge from dark depths of the recession, it’s on our minds more than ever. However, when the government revealed it’s plans to conduct a survey of the UK’s happiness, concerns were voiced by the Archbishop of Wales in his Christmas sermon. The Archbishop, Dr Barry Morgan, feared that it would “encourage people to dwell on their own needs” resulting in an unhealthy combination of selfish thought and dissatisfaction. This may sound like an overreaction but, according to this recent review, Dr Barry Morgan’s views echo recent developments in psychological research.

The review considers four main questions; the first of which asks, ‘Is there a wrong degree of happiness?’ Here evidence is given to suggest that extreme happiness can actually be detrimental as high positive emotion has been associated with riskier behaviour choices and neglect of danger. The authors also point out how an absence of negative emotion and heightened positive emotions can serve as a clinical marker of psychopathology. The second question, ‘Is there a wrong time for happiness?’ concludes that happiness might not be adaptive in all situations. Philosophers, typically utilitarians, have tended to work under the assumption that we must always act to maximise happiness. However, many theories now suggest that emotions are adaptive and therefore positive and negative emotions serve their respective purposes under different conditions. This can be linked to physiological responses, for example the ‘flight or fight’ response mechanism often triggered by fear; an individual who doesn’t experience fear as a cue to this mechanism may not be as well prepared to run or fight in a dangerous situation. Evidence also suggests that emotions can focus our attention on particular aspects of the environment therefore allowing us to prioritise efficiently.

The third element of the review looks at the way in which people pursue happiness; referring to the paradox identified by philosophers in which seeking out happiness actually decreases your chances of achieving it. This was the point made by Dr Barry Morgan when he suggested that happiness surveys lead to dissatisfaction. Several studies have shown that pursuit of happiness increases people’s expectations and sets them up for disappointment and contribute to increased self-interest.

The final point raised was about the fact that different types of happiness exist and not all of these are positive and it could be that certain types have negative social impacts. Also different cultures place different values on particular emotions. For example, American culture places a higher value on socially disengaged emotions such as pride whereas Japanese culture tends to value guilt, which is socially engaged.

Therefore although this study realises that happiness is obviously a positive and desirable emotion, it does suggest that it is more complex than you might first think. This study should encourage deeper thought and further investigation into the topic, especially as developments could have political implications.

 

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