Huge doses of happiness can have serious side-effects

Marta Zaraska April 12, 2012

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Too much of a good thing ... positive feelings can lead to hasty judgments and stagnation. Photo: Getty Images

The happier you are, the better, right? Not necessarily. Studies show there is a darker side to feeling good and the pursuit of happiness can sometimes make you … well, less happy. Too much cheerfulness can make you gullible, selfish, less successful - and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Happiness can protect us from stroke and the common cold, make us more resistant to pain and even prolong our lives. Yet it's important to experience positive moods in moderation, warns June Gruber, a professor of psychology at Yale University.

Gruber compares happiness to food: although necessary and beneficial, too much of it can lead to bad outcomes. ''Research indicates that very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviours, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and may lead us to neglect threats,'' she says.

It may also hamper career prospects. Psychologist Edward Diener analysed a variety of studies, including data from more than 16,000 people around the world, and discovered those who reported the highest life satisfaction early in life later reported lower income than those who felt slightly less merry when young. What's more, they dropped out of school earlier.

Diener suggests people who don't experience much sadness or anxiety are rarely dissatisfied with their jobs and therefore feel less pressure to get more education or change careers.

Psychologists point out that emotions are adaptive. They make us change behaviour to help us survive. Studies show that when we are sad, we think in a more systematic manner. Sad people are attentive to details and externally oriented, while happy people tend to make snap judgments that may reflect racial or sex stereotyping.

In a 1994 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Northwestern University psychologist Galen Bodenhausen asked 94 undergraduates to participate in a simulated ''students' court''. Half the participants were induced into a positive mood (by writing about an event that had made them feel happy), while the other half were asked to recall the mundane events of the previous day (to leave them in a neutral mood). The results were clear: those in a happy mood were more likely to find a fellow student named ''Juan Garcia'' guilty of beating up a roommate than one called ''John Garner''. The control group was fairly equally divided between ''Juan'' and ''John''.

That happy people are more prone to stereotypical thinking was supported in research by Joe Forgas, a professor from the school of psychology at the University of New South Wales.

In an experiment published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Forgas asked students to read a philosophical essay by a ''Robin Taylor'', to which a photograph of the presumed author was attached. Some students received a picture of a middle-aged, bearded man; others, a young woman in a T-shirt. The essays were identical but the ''happy'' students judged the man's work more competent than the woman's. Their non-induced colleagues declared both essays to be of equal quality.

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California asked 120 people to listen to Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. He discovered that those who listened with a specific intent to make themselves happy or constantly monitored how much they were enjoying themselves ended up enjoying themselves less than those who just focused on the experience.

But don't burn your ''how to be happy'' books just yet. ''Just don't keep a score on how happy you are,'' says Schooler. ''What's bad is when people make happiness their explicit goal all the time.''

Gruber says it's important to accept whatever one's level of happiness is - as long as you are not clinically depressed, of course - and the negative feelings you may have. She is exploring the notion that three positive emotions (such as joy, gratitude or hope) for every one negative (disgust, embarrassment, fear) is a good balance.

The Washington Post

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