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Feeling Sad? You Might be Trying Too Hard to be Happy

by Brock Bastian
09 February 2016
There’s no shortage of self-help books or Instagram posts about happiness. But is our obsession with feeling happy making us sad? Brock Bastian thinks it might be.

Imagine you have decided you want a new car. You have seen it advertised, a few of your friends have bought one, and it seems like it will suit you really well. You start to save for your car, each day you put away a little bit more money. At the end of six months you hope you have enough, but on inspection of your bank account you realise you are still short.

This gap between how much money you would like to have and the amount of money that you actually do have makes you feel disappointed. In time however you manage to turn your disappointment into new found motivation and start to save again, eventually meeting your goal and buying your dream car.

Imagine instead of a car you goal is to be happy. You work each day, trying to become a little bit happier than you were before. At the end of six months you sit down and assess whether you are as happy as you had aimed to be. You realise that actually you had hoped to be happier than you actually are. This gap between how much happiness you would like to have, and how happy you actually are, makes you feel disappointed.

Disappointment is a negative emotion. Over time this starts to interfere with your levels of happiness. In fact, in contrast to your goal to feel happy much of the time you start to feel disappointed about how unhappy you are. Eventually you realise that not only are you less happy than you had aimed to be, but you are less happy than you were when you hatched this masterful plan!

Trying to be happy can often, and perhaps most often, be counter-productive at best and outright damaging at worst. It also illustrates the reason why one of the most powerful strategies for achieving happiness is to give up trying to be happy. The very act of trying to be happy ironically pushes happiness further away.

Simply focusing on happiness may not be the best way to build a good life, and seeking out meaning in life - which may be derived from both positive and negative experiences - seems to have better prospects when it comes to maximising what the Ancient Greeks called ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing.

Over a decade ago by Martin Seligman and colleagues launched the positive psychology movement. They championed the importance of positive experiences, positive mindsets, and positive emotions for well-being and performance. This has been a resounding success – positive emotions have been shown to have a range of positive health benefits.

Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger is the physical embodiment of positive psychology.

Yet when too much emphasis is placed on the importance of feeling happy, when happiness is seen as a goal in and of itself or when the pursuit of happiness becomes pressured, this may produce a number of ironic and counter-productive effects. In the end, it may actually serve to produce more sadness.   

There may be other downsides to the blind pursuit of happiness. First, too much happiness may not be good for us. To a modern Westerner this statement may seem inconsistent or blatantly untrue – surely it is not possible to have too much of a good thing? However, in Eastern philosophy the notion that there can be too much of a good thing is very familiar. In Japan for instance, emotional balance is valued more than blatant positivity and the pursuit of happiness can sometimes be viewed as ‘immoral’.

There is now plenty of evidence to suggest extreme levels of happiness may actually be harmful. For example, very happy people tend to engage in riskier behaviours, live shorter lives and earn lower salaries. Indeed even moderately happy people may be more prejudiced and tend to be less realistic in their view of the world. These examples give us good reason to believe that more happiness is not always better and endlessly promoting happiness may not always be the best thing.

The second potential downside has less to do with how people value happiness than it does the relative value they place on sadness. Although scientists interested in the study of emotion are well aware positive and negative emotions tend to occur relatively independently of each other, this is not how lay people think about broad emotional concepts like ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness’. These emotional concepts tend to be viewed as mutually exclusive – being more happy means being less sad, and being less sad means being happier.

Can forcing yourself to be happy make you sad?

Within these contexts, feelings of sadness are not only counter-productive to the experience of happiness but they may become overlaid with values attached to success and achievement. Being happy becomes an indicator of the successful life while being sad feels like failure.

The relative devaluation of negative emotions, such as sadness, is perhaps the most sinister downside to the mindless pursuit of happiness. When sadness is viewed as a sign of failure it becomes unacceptable for people to have this experience – they find it aversive, they do not like it and moreover they become upset about the fact that they are sad. This is perhaps why many psychologists report that the people they see for the treatment of depression are often more depressed about being depressed than they are actually just depressed.


Keen to learn more about emotions like happiness? Tickets to The Ethics of Emotion on 31 May 2017 are on sale now.

While psychologists are teaching people that they should be more accepting of their negative emotions, the cultures within which those people live may be sending a very different message. People are easily swayed by the normative influences of their cultures and cultural values, and customs or conventions are important determinants of an individual’s emotional experience. This raises the important question of whether accepting one’s own sadness may be less effective if that sadness is viewed as unacceptable and inappropriate by those around us.

It doesn’t take too much to work out which emotional states are more highly valued in Westernised (and other) societies. In Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich suggests Western culture has become obsessed with optimism and happiness.

Smile or Die.

Schools aim to increase the happiness of their students, and organisations seek to maximise the happiness of their employees. National campaigns are designed to promote the happiness of their constituents and the happiness of a nation is now measured in similar ways to Gross Domestic Product. Indeed, a brief Google search will reveal a number of maps charting national differences in happiness.

Happiness is also a close bedfellow of marketing and consumerism. I would venture to suggest that the only time we see unhappiness marketed to us is when we are being informed about a new treatment for it. Be it anti-depressants, pain killers, or even a new suit and nice car, we are being sent the message that the value of all these things is that they will make us happier. Underlying this kind of materialism is the basic goal to maximise pleasure and happiness through unfettered and mostly unnecessary consumption. Indeed, even happiness itself has become a commodity, with the shelves of most book shops lined with paperbacks offering the latest perspective on how to best maximise one’s levels of happiness.

Even Don Draper knows happiness can be a trap.

This focus on the value of happiness stands in stark contrast to the ways in which sadness is valued. At best it is seen as an aberration, at worst it is pathologised and medicalised. More and more people are presenting to GPs with feelings of sadness that are being casually labelled as depression. Of course depression itself is not necessarily a pathological state, and feelings of depression can be aptly described as part of what is means to be a healthy individual. For instance, feeling depressed at the loss of one of your parents is expected, normal, and even necessary. In this context it would be a failure to feel depressed or sad that would be most concerning.

In clinical contexts ‘depression’ is a term that opens the door to pharmacological and psychological treatment regimes. As such common malaise is often diagnosed as an illness and treated with drugs and other interventions designed to quickly and efficiently return people to ‘normality’. Left out of the prominent discourse in these contexts is the recognition that negative emotions may have a range of positive consequences, such as unleashing creative potential, solidifying interpersonal relations and providing the foundation for a rich and meaningful life.

Extreme levels of happiness may actually be harmful.
Loving happiness is not really the main problem here at all. It is when our love of happiness turns into a dislike of sadness we experience the kinds of issues that I have described. Happiness is only one half of the emotional spectrum. As humans we have evolved the capacity for a range of negative emotions ranging from fear and anger to stress and sadness. These emotions are functionally important – they tell us something about how we are interacting with our environment, whether those interactions are successful, whether we need to avoid certain interactions in the future or whether there is danger ahead.

So can you love happiness and still be happy? I would certainly maintain that you can. But you cannot expect to be able to feel happy, you cannot try to feel happy, and you cannot capture or own your happiness. Think for a moment of what it takes to love your partner, your children, or your friends. In each of these cases the critical component of love is the ability to set the other free. Love itself breeds the risk of loss and perhaps is only as powerful as the threat of that loss. Trying to own or control others is rarely considered an expression of true love.

If you love happiness, then perhaps the best advice is to set it free. Be glad when it enters your life but don’t feel disappointed and hurt when it leaves again. Letting it go may be the best way to ensure it comes back to you again in the future.

Brock Bastian is a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne. This is an edited extract from “On Happiness: New Ideas for The 21st Century” UWA Publishing.