May 24, 2011

New Study Sheds Light On ‘Dark Side of Happiness’

May 23, 2011

The “pursuit of happiness’’ has been something Americans have valued ever since the Founding Fathers inserted it into the Declaration of Independence. Yet some psychologists now question whether happiness is, indeed, a worthwhile goal, since new findings suggest the pursuit could actually make us more unhappy.

In a review paper published last week in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers define what they call the “dark side of happiness’’: feeling happy all the time can destroy relationships and careers, while avidly pursuing happiness is bound to lead to disappointment.

While some of us may envy those manic folks at the extreme end of the cheerful spectrum, they often have the same level of dysfunction as a person who’s too sad, some recent studies suggest. They may completely tune out sad events around them like, say, their spouse being laid off or a parent dying.

“It’s happiness turned inward,’’ says June Gruber, a professor of psychology at Yale University who is studying mania. “They’re attuned only to their own happiness’’ and completely oblivious to what loved ones are feeling around them. It’s the flip side of depression, where individuals can only focus on their own suffering.

Researchers have found that people with high emotional states are more likely to engage in riskier behaviors like drug and alcohol use, gambling, sexual promiscuity, and drag racing.

“They have persistent euphoria, may feel like they have special powers or instantly fall in love with strangers,’’ says Gruber. They also may constantly feel inspired but don’t use this creativity to produce very much.

Far more common than extreme happiness, though, is the overwhelming need to seek out happiness, evidenced by the current No.1 advice book on The New York Times paperback bestseller list called “The Happiness Project.’’ The author, Gretchen Rubin, spent a year thinking about what makes her happy by making lists, keeping a journal, and engaging in activities centered around increasing her state of well-being.

While the approach makes sense in theory, the latest studies have shown that trying to increase happiness can actually be counterproductive. “People often fall short of their goals and that can make them feel unhappy,’’ says Iris Mauss, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Denver.

In her recent research, Mauss discovered that those who value happiness the most have a lower state of well-being, less satisfaction with life, and are more likely to be depressed. She also found that teaching people to adopt happiness as a value caused them to feel more lonely and socially disconnected.

“People may be happiest when they’re not monitoring their own happiness," Mauss contends. That doesn’t mean we should completely abandon the pursuit of happiness and resign ourselves to leading unhappy lives. But rather, we should pursue happiness the right way — defining it as leading a meaningful life, rather than partaking in hedonic pleasures.