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A thorough look into recent literature has revealed that, despite Western culture’s never sated desire for more happiness, too much of it can, in fact, be a bad thing (read the new book The Upside of Your Dark Side if you’re interested in this topic).
Extreme levels of positive emotions come with the downsides of restricted creativity and a more rigid behavior repertoire. In manic amounts, happiness is also linked with increases in risk-taking behaviors such as gambling, substance use, unprotected sex, and physical stunts. Without negative emotions to balance the positive ones, individuals are ill-equipped to recognize threats and danger. Just as extreme anger or sadness can overpower the goodness in life, happiness as an absence of negative emotions can be quite detrimental at extreme levels.
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Happiness is healthy and adaptive up to a point, but, like all things, it requires balance. The contrast of negative emotions is vital to maintaining internal stability. In extreme amounts, happiness can entirely obscure concerns for one’s self and others. The psychological states of mania and psychopathy demonstrate how too much of a good feeling can result in some very bad feelings indeed.
Mania, a core symptom of Bipolar I, feels amazing while it’s happening. The mind races with ideas, bursts of creative productivity lead to feelings of heightened self-esteem, and all things seem possible. Risky investments, gambling, unchecked consumption of mind-altering substances, unprotected sex, and physical risks might seem like good ideas while the mind and body experience uncontainable energy, and the consequences might not even seem to affect you. But mania is physiologically a lot like a sugar rush or a cocaine binge; after the euphoria and energy run their course, the manic experiences a crash and a compensatory depression. Projects that you started while manic seem impossible to complete while you’re depressed, and the consequences of your unrestrained actions begin to feel larger than life.
Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by a lack of guilt, empathy, or understanding of repercussions. In many cases this disorder leads to antisocial behaviors, like inflicting pain on others. Furthermore, the psychopathic inability to understand repercussions often leads them to repeat actions that have previously caused them legal and interpersonal problems.
In the ‘Lemonade Vendor’ scene in the 1933 Marx’s brothers movie ‘Duck Soup’, Pinky’s (Harpo Marx) happiness has carried on to the point of psychopathy:
Too Much of a Good Thing
Can one desire too much of a good thing? – William Shakespeare
Research that demonstrates a link between happiness and positive psychological outcomes is neither new nor surprising. However, newer, somewhat counter-intuitive research suggests that happiness is not always necessarily a good thing. Researchers approached this new perspective in a meta-analysis of the emerging body of research that focuses on the potentially maladaptive facets of happiness.
Gruber, Mauss and Tamir (2011) addressed this aspect of positive emotions and found that, whereas moderate levels of happiness led to positive psychological benefits, excessive levels of happiness did not. This study demonstrated the following four points:
1. As already mentioned, extreme levels of happiness can lead to negative outcomes such as an increase in risky behaviors.
2. Secondly, the researchers found that happiness could be maladaptive in the wrong contexts – for example, an unsafe environment, when it would be more functional to feel emotions such as fear or anger.
3. Thirdly, they found that pursuing happiness as a goal unto itself paradoxically leads to an overall diminishing of happiness.
4. Finally, the study demonstrates that certain “types” of happiness can be contextually inappropriate in terms of the cultural values of society.
The ultimate point of this research suggests that happiness arises as a natural by-product of living well, fully, and meaningfully. Most of us have heard the aphorism, “happiness is a journey, not a destination”. This research lends empirical credence to this piece of folk wisdom, while simultaneously explaining its meaning. No one action, item, or relationship can translate directly to happiness; happiness comes as a result of interacting meaningfully with the things, people, and opportunities in our lives.
Though many strive to obtain material wealth in order to be happy, thinking that if they can have all of the things that they want, happiness will surely follow. As it turns out, money only predicts happiness up to a finite point, and giving to others actually provides a lot more gratification than spending money on one’s self.
But what about people who suddenly obtain massive amounts of money, like lottery winners? Does instant gratification lead to instant happiness? Advertisements for the lottery depict winners as jumping for joy after winning their new fortune, but after the initial surprise wears off, are they really happier than the rest of us?
The answer is a resounding ‘no’.
Psychologists from the University of Massachusetts and Northwestern University in Illinois compared the levels of happiness between lottery winners and ordinary people. As the researchers expected, there was no difference in overall happiness between the two groups. In fact, lottery winners were significantly less likely to take pleasure in everyday activities such as receiving a compliment and talking with a friend.
The explanation given for this finding was that lottery winners now compare everyday pleasures with winning the lottery, and therefore are less likely to enjoy them as much as non-lottery winners. Additionally, it is inevitable that lottery winners will eventually habituate or get used to their new fortune, so the initial peak in happiness wears off rather quickly.
Finding Happiness in Garbage
In Leon, Nicaragua, most of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty line. This has forced some residents to live in the rubbish dump, collecting and recycling rubbish for a living. Although these collectors are the poorest of the poor and socially scorned, interviews reveal that over 70% are happy and optimistic about a better future. Over 80% have strong social relationships, and those that are happiest listen to the radio, read, and participate in sports.
Although some have access to electricity, television and mobile phones, these amenities do not increase their levels of happiness. Overall, the happiness of the trash collectors of Leon appears to be based on the satisfaction these people find in different areas of their lives. The only real difference between someone living in a dump and someone living in a mansion is the amount of resources they have access too, and it is certainly easier to count your blessings when you have fewer of them.
Earning resources the hard way is a lot more gratifying than simply having them handed to you. In fact, a bit of storm and stress is a prerequisite for certain types of personal development. Without confusion, loss, and heartache, it becomes difficult to appreciate the good times. Despite their extreme poverty, the trash collectors of Leon lead incredibly rich lives, filled with meaningful activity and interpersonal interaction. They are living proof that money does not buy happiness—meaning does. Furthermore, they serve as a reminder that the flame of happiness burns brightest in the darkness of the struggle.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident
victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927.
Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222-233. doi: 10.1177/1745691611406927.
Vazquez, J. (2012). Happiness among the garbage: Differences in overall happiness among trash pickers in Leon (Nicaragua). The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(1), 1-‐11.