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In many cultures around the world, happiness is generally considered to be a positive emotion. But is the pursuit of happiness and “feeling happy” a good thing? Clinical psychologist June Gruber, social psychologist Iris B. Mauss, and researcher Maya Tamir looked into answering a related question: might happiness be dysfunctional at times? The short answer is: it depends.

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Gruber, Mauss, and Tamir tried to find an answer by analyzing four discrete questions on happiness:

  1. Is there a wrong degree of happiness?
  2. Is there a wrong time for happiness?
  3. Are there wrong ways to pursue happiness?
  4. Are there wrong types of happiness?

For the first question, they suggest that people may struggle if they swing between extreme happiness and extreme unhappiness within short periods of time.

“The position that a greater degree of happiness (i.e., high positive and low negative emotion) can constitute a source of dysfunction also finds support in the clinical domain,” they write. This source of extreme happiness may also be a symptom of another issue, such as mania, which can occur in people who live with bipolar disorder among other conditions.

Secondly, emotional regulation can be important for processing what’s happening in the world and in our daily lives. Perhaps surprisingly, having negative emotions may be helpful in some instances. The authors note that in a 2007 study, “participants in a positive mood produced significantly less persuasive arguments, whereas those in a negative mood produced significantly more persuasive arguments, compared with those in a neutral mood condition.” However, some people may process information differently, and research doesn’t overwhelmingly show that happiness can impair cognition.

As for the third question, positing happiness as desirable could lead to disappointment for people who can’t regularly experience it. If someone feels frustrated that they aren’t happy at their own birthday party, they may begin to feel even more negative emotions. In fact, they found that “[t]he more people value—and pursue—happiness, the less likely they may be to obtain it, especially when happiness appears to be within reach.” However, they also note that “pursuing happiness may lead to positive outcomes if people are given the right tools to do so.”

Lastly, the authors explain that happiness comes in “different flavors” that share “a common core of present positivity and absent negativity.” We perhaps assume, then, that all types have similar effects on human well-being. But “not all types of happiness have adaptive effects on human functioning…some types of happiness may even be a source of dysfunction.” Though “relatively little research has systematically examined the differential effects of various types of happiness,” the authors suggest that some types of happiness “appear to impair social functioning, thereby leading to decreased well-being.”

The researchers conclude that “humans have a strong desire to achieve and experience happiness” since it’s viewed as “a hallmark of psychological health” and offers other benefits:

Happiness facilitates the pursuit of important goals, contributes to vital social bonds, and broadens our scope of attention to enable processing of new ideas and stimuli in the environment.

However, their analysis suggests that happiness has its downsides, and “the field may now be ripe to explore additional facets of happiness, including the potential disadvantages of happiness.”

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Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 6, No. 3 (MAY 2011), pp. 222–233
Association for Psychological Science