Perspectives on Psychological
A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good
June Gruber, Iris B. Mauss and Maya Tamir
Perspectives on Psychological Science 2011 6: 222
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by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
Perspectives on Psychological Science
A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and
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Why Happiness Is Not Always Good
June Gruber1, Iris B. Mauss2, and Maya Tamir3,4
1Yale University, Department of Psychology, New Haven, CT; 2Department of Psychology, University of Denver, CO;
3Department of Psychology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel; and 4Department of Psychology, Boston
Happiness is generally considered a source of good outcomes. Research has highlighted the ways in which happiness facilitates the
pursuit of important goals, contributes to vital social bonds, broadens people's scope of attention, and increases well-being and
psychological health. However, is happiness always a good thing? This review suggests that the pursuit and experience of happiness
might sometimes lead to negative outcomes. We focus on four questions regarding this purported ` dark side'' of happiness. First,
is there a wrong degree of happiness? Second, is there a wrong time for happiness? Third, are there wrong ways to pursue happi-
ness? Fourth, are there wrong types of happiness? Cumulatively, these lines of research suggest that although happiness is often
highly beneficial, it may not be beneficial at every level, in every context, for every reason, and in every variety.
happiness, emotion, well-being, mania
Getting angry . . . is easy and everyone can do it; but doing
psychology follows suit of this zeitgeist for happiness (for
it . . . in the right amount, at the right time, and for the right end,
reviews, see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Seligman &
and in the right way is no longer easy, nor can everyone do it.
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Shiota, Keltner, & John, 2006). This
--Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (II.9, 1109a27)
body of research highlights that happiness is critical to human
flourishing. At the same time, psychological research has, to
The idea that unhappiness can be dysfunctional is widely
date, neglected another important possibility regarding happi-
acknowledged and as old as the study of psychology itself.
ness--that it may, under certain conditions, be maladaptive.
However, might happiness also be dysfunctional at times? As
We propose that the field is now ripe to consider the costs, and
suggested by the opening quote, even emotions that are typi-
not just the benefits, of happiness. This idea is not entirely
cally assumed to be undesirable, such as anger, may not be
new. Several researchers (Grant & Schwartz, 2011; Nesse,
inherently dysfunctional. Rather, their adaptive value depends
2004; Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2006) have noted that the
on whether they are experienced in the right degree, at the right
emphasis on the benefits of positive experiences, like happi-
time, and in the right way. Building on this notion, we examine
ness, has left the discussion of the potential disadvantages
the boundary conditions that determine whether and when hap-
relatively untouched. These ideas, however, are yet to be
piness might be maladaptive. Specifically, we explore whether
explored in a more comprehensive manner that considers mul-
happiness can be a source of dysfunction if it is experienced in
tiple components of happiness.
the wrong amount, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way.
This article provides the first review of emerging
Might happiness be dysfunctional at times? At first glance,
research in affective, clinical, and social science examining
the answer to this question would appear to be ``no.'' Indeed,
there is a strong popular and scientific emphasis on happiness
as a source of beneficial outcomes, as evidenced by the
increasing demand for motivational speakers, life coaches, and
June Gruber, Department of Psychology, Yale University, P.O. Box 208205,
self-help books with the primary function of increasing
New Haven, CT 06520.
happiness. Recent research in affective science and positive
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
A Dark Side of Happiness?
the potential maladaptive aspects of happiness. We begin by
and counters the outgroup homogeneity effect (Fredrickson,
briefly reviewing the robust line of empirical research on
2001; K.L. Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005). Second, increased
the benefits of happiness. Although these findings are
positive emotion leads to more prosocial outcomes and
important, we stress that it is paramount to broaden our
enhances affiliation (Isen, 2000). Third, positive emotion facil-
understanding of happiness by also considering its potential
itates cognitive flexibility by allowing people to shift attention
maladaptive consequences. We address this central thesis
to novel stimuli (Carver, 2003) and to direct selective attention
along four thematic questions, which echo Aristotle's pres-
to rewards in the environment (Tamir & Robinson, 2007).
cient observations at the opening of this article. Specifically,
Finally, positive emotion is associated with improved physical
we focus on four questions that reveal critical boundary
health and physical-health correlates (Fredrickson & Levenson,
conditions to the benefits of happiness, as follows: Is there
1998; Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004; Veenhoven, 2008)
a wrong degree of happiness? Is there a wrong time for hap-
as well as improved mental health (Bonanno & Keltner, 1997;
piness? Are there wrong ways to pursue happiness? Are
there wrong types of happiness? We conclude by suggesting
Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). In addition, evidence has
that happiness and its implications for psychological health
suggested that increased positive emotion causally contributes
can be understood more fully by considering its potential
to positive health outcomes (Fredrickson, 1998; Lyubomirsky,
King, & Diener, 2005). For example, one study demonstrated
Happiness is generally considered to include at least
that, over time, meditation aimed at enhancing happiness led
three components: more positive affect, less negative affect,
to improved psychological health (i.e., reductions in depression
and life satisfaction (e.g., Diener, Scollon, & Lucas, 2003; Lyubo-
symptoms) when compared with the results from a control group
mirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi,
(Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).
2000). Each of the three components represents an important
A converging line of work further reveals important benefits
building block of happiness. The first two components are consid-
of decreased negative emotion. For example, lower levels of
ered emotional and reflect more affective, or hedonic, aspects of
negative emotion are associated with reduced risk of various
happiness, whereas the third is primarily cognitive and based on
psychological disorders, ranging from anxiety and depression
evaluations of one's current and past life circumstances.
to borderline personality disorder (for a review, see Kring,
The hedonic components of happiness are consistently
2008). Moreover, lower levels of negative emotions are associ-
conceptualized in terms of increased positive emotion (also
ated with decreased risk of serious health conditions, such as
referred to as positive affect or pleasure) and decreased
coronary heart disease (Kubzansky & Kawachi, 2000;
negative emotion (also referred to as negative affect or displea-
Kubzansky et al., 1997).
sure). By contrast, there is relative heterogeneity in the conceptua-
Studies that measured positive and negative emotion con-
lization of the cognitive component of happiness, with an
currently are less common. Nonetheless, such studies provide
emphasis on life satisfaction, meaning in life (e.g., Ryff, 1989),
additional evidence documenting the adaptive consequences
and goal attainment (e.g., Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001).
of happiness. For example, Fredrickson and Losada (2005)
Because there is clearer consensus on the nature of the hedo-
demonstrated that individuals with a high positive-to-negative
nic components of happiness and because the hedonic and cog-
emotion ratio (e.g., 2.9) are far more likely to flourish.
nitive components of happiness may engage distinct processes
There is no doubt that happiness is often beneficial. Indeed,
(e.g., Zajonc, 1980), as a first step toward identifying maladap-
on the basis of the robust benefits of happiness, it is tempting to
tive aspects of happiness, in this endeavor we focus on the
conclude that happiness is always beneficial and that people
hedonic components of happiness--namely, increased positive
should aim to enhance their happiness in any way possible.
emotion and decreased negative emotion. Thus, the term hap-
As these ideas gain momentum, we must explore potential
piness hereafter refers to an experience that involves the pres-
boundary conditions to these general claims about happiness.
ence of pleasure or positive emotion and the absence of
In the sections that follow, we explore whether there might
displeasure or negative emotion (e.g., Kahneman, 1999).
be a ``dark side'' to happiness, by examining how much, when,
why, and what kinds of happiness may be more or less
Benefits of Happiness
A robust line of research highlights several key benefits of
Question 1: Is There a Wrong Degree of
happiness (e.g., Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Seligman
& Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Ample research has highlighted the
benefits of positive emotions and the costs of negative emotions,
Can happiness lead to negative outcomes when it is experi-
and we briefly summarize these findings. Several lines of
enced too intensely? Given that prior work has focused mainly
converging evidence suggest important benefits of increased
on the adaptive consequences of happiness, the assumption
positive emotion. First, positive emotion facilitates the broaden-
appears to be that the greater one's degree of happiness is, the
ing of thought-action repertoires and builds vital social, physi-
better off psychologically one is (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006).
cal, and cognitive resources (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998). For
However, others have argued that excessive levels of any
instance, positive emotion facilitates global visual processing
mental state or experience--including happiness--can be
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
Gruber et al.
undesirable and unhealthy. For example, Grant and Schwartz
with profound occupational, functional, and social impairment
(2011) have built on Aristotelian definitions of emotional
(Coryell et al., 1993). In line with this idea, Nesse (2004) noted,
health and argued that happiness has benefits up to a moderate
``One manic may give away his life's savings on a whim, while
degree but costs when experienced at an extreme degree. Other
another joyfully drives 100 m.p.h. to a sexual liaison with a
researchers concur with the idea that at an extreme level of
potentially dangerous stranger'' (p. 1341). Heightened positive
intensity happiness may not convey additional benefits or may
emotion may thus interfere with the ability to inhibit risk-taking
even lead to negative outcomes (Diener & Biswas-Diener,
behaviors (i.e., sexual activity with a stranger) and attention to
2009; Oishi et al., 2006).
threats (e.g., driving at a high speed). Second, extremely intense
More recent empirical studies in healthy populations have
positive emotion is associated with a more severe illness course
garnered support for these claims. Meta-analytic data suggest
in mania. For example, increased positive emotion reactivity pre-
that at a very high intensity of happiness, people experience
dicts greater mood relapse over time (S.L. Johnson, 2005; Meyer,
no psychological or health gains and sometimes they experience
Johnson, & Winters, 2001), and greater degrees of self-reported
costs. For instance, whereas moderate levels of positive emo-
positive emotions like joy predict increased manic symptom
tions engender more creativity, high levels of positive emotions
severity (Gruber et al., 2009). Collectively, these studies suggest
do not (Davis, 2008). Furthermore, people with extremely high
that the highly intense positive emotion that is part of mania is
positive-to-negative emotion ratios (i.e., >5:1) exhibit more
associated with dysfunctional behaviors and predicts poorer clin-
rigid behavioral repertoires (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). With
ical functioning. We note, however, that future research is war-
respect to physical health, a high degree of parent- and teacher-
ranted to disentangle whether mania is indeed at the upper end
rated ``cheerfulness'' is prospectively associated with a greater
on the happiness continuum.
mortality risk (Friedman et al., 1993). Furthermore, when
The costs associated with negative emotion that is not
experiencing very high degrees of positive emotion, some indi-
intense enough can be inferred from examining individuals
viduals are inclined to engage in riskier behaviors, such as alco-
with psychopathy. Psychopathy is a form of antisocial person-
hol consumption, binge eating, and drug use (Cyders & Smith,
ality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard
2008; L.R. Martin et al., 2002). Baumeister, Bratslavsky,
for the welfare of others combined with an emotional detach-
Finkenauer, and Vohs (2001) noted that individuals with high
ment from one's environment (American Psychiatric Associa-
positive emotion levels may tend to neglect important threats
tion, 2000). Psychopathy is characterized by a primary deficit
and dangers. These studies, along with prior conceptual work
in negative emotions, primarily anxiety and fear (Fowles,
(Grant & Schwartz, 2011; Oishi et al., 2006), converge on the
1980). For example, individuals with psychopathy exhibit
conclusion that the association between happiness and benefi-
reduced negative emotional responses, including reduced elec-
cial outcomes is nonlinear; a higher degree of happiness is not
trodermal responding (Hare, 1978), an attenuated startle reflex
always better and may actually be associated with undesirable
response (Patrick, 1994), and decreased facial expressions of
and unintended outcomes when it exceeds a certain threshold.
negative emotion (Herpertz et al., 2001) in response to a variety
The position that a greater degree of happiness (i.e., high
of negative emotional stimuli. This absence of negative emo-
positive and low negative emotion) can constitute a source of
tions in the face of aversive situations has been suggested to
dysfunction also finds support in the clinical domain. Here
be a primary maintaining factor for a host of antisocial beha-
we highlight recent work suggesting that an extreme
viors and practices (e.g., inflicting physical pain toward others)
degree of the two emotional subcomponents of happiness--
in psychopathy (e.g., Fowles, 1980). We note that the absence
heightened positive emotion and a relative absence of negative
of negative emotion reactivity has also been associated
emotion--may serve as a marker of psychopathology (Bentall,
with worse outcomes in other disorders such as depression
1992; Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008).
(Rottenberg, Kasch, Gross, & Gotlib, 2002).
The costs associated with positive emotion that is too
In summary, an excessive degree of happiness--manifested
intense can be inferred from examining individuals with a
as a heightened degree of positive emotion and/or relative
clinical history of mania. Mania is characterized by a persis-
absence of negative emotion--can lead to undesirable out-
tently elevated or increased degree of positive mood (American
comes in healthy populations and is also associated with psy-
Psychiatric Association, 2000). Recent work suggests that
extreme levels of positive emotion are a marker of emotion
observations are consistent with early philosophical notions
dysfunction in individuals with a history of mania (Gruber, in
that extreme levels of any mental experience can lead to unde-
press). There are two possible ways in which an extreme degree
sirable outcomes, and happiness is no exception.
of happiness manifested via increased positive emotion may be
associated with dysfunction in mania. First, extreme positive
Question 2: Is There a Wrong Time for
emotion in mania may undermine the ability to experience
negative emotions. In mania, individuals are in happiness
``overdrive,'' characterized by an inability to downshift happi-
In the previous section, we suggested that happiness might not
ness (Gruber, in press). In turn, this happiness overdrive may
be adaptive at every level of intensity. In this section, we sug-
lead to deleterious outcomes, such as with risk-taking
gest that happiness may not be adaptive when experienced in
behaviors and neglect of threats. Indeed, mania is associated
every context. To the extent that emotions have particular
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
A Dark Side of Happiness?
cognitive, motivational, and behavioral correlates, they should
From a cognitive perspective, emotions influence the way
be adaptive only in contexts in which the implications they give
people process information in several important ways. First,
rise to are desirable; this is equally true of positive and negative
emotions orient people to goal-related features in the environ-
emotions. Therefore, there might be wrong times to feel posi-
ment. Excitement, for instance, may bias one's attention
tive emotions and right times to feel negative emotions. In
toward potential rewards, so that the person can build resources
what follows, we first set the stage for these ideas by reviewing
(Tamir & Robinson, 2007). In contrast, fear biases one's atten-
functional approaches to emotion and findings on the instrumen-
tion toward potential threats, so that the person can deal with
tal use of emotions. We then explain why emotions might be bet-
them as soon as they arise (e.g., Williams, Watts, MacLeod,
ter when experienced in some contexts than others, by
& Mathews, 1997). These concepts imply that a cheerful per-
highlighting physiological, cognitive, and social psychological
son may be slower than a fearful person to detect a potential
threat in the environment (e.g., Ford et al., 2010; Mogg &
Emotions are responses to particular sets of circum-
Bradley, 1999). When a person is confronted with serious threat
stances. People feel joy in response to goal attainment, fear
that requires very fast responses, such a delayed detection could
in response to a threat, and anger in response to an unfair
be crucial. For instance, a person who is quick to detect a vehicle
offense (e.g., Lazarus, 1991). Functional theories of emotion
running out of control on the road and veering at high speed in
posit that emotions are adaptive (e.g., Levenson, 1994). For
his or her direction is more likely to avoid an accident when driv-
instance, positive emotions may prepare the individual to
ing. In this context, feeling no fear is likely to be harmful.
build resources (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998), whereas anger
Furthermore, emotions influence not only what people
may prepare the individual to fight off an offender (e.g.,
attend to but also how they process the attended information.
Frijda, 1986). Readiness to build resources, however, is
Emotional states exert significant effects on memory, judg-
likely to be adaptive when the environment is safe, but not
ment, decision making, and creativity (for reviews, see
necessarily when it is threatening. Similarly, readiness to
Dalgleish & Power, 1999; Forgas, 2001; L.L. Martin & Clore,
fight could be adaptive when confronting enemies, but not
2001). Some studies suggest that certain positive emotions lead
when surrounded by supportive friends.
people to rely more on highly accessible cognitions, such as
Evidence now suggests that people regulate their emo-
beliefs, expectations, and stereotypes (e.g., Forgas & Fiedler,
tions in ways that allow them to capitalize on their unique
1996; Mackie, Queller, Stroessner, & Hamilton, 1996). For
implications in specific contexts. According to the instru-
instance, participants who underwent a positive mood induc-
mental approach to emotion regulation (e.g., Tamir, 2009),
tion were more likely than others to judge a member of a
people can be motivated to experience both positive and
stereotyped social group, but not other suspects, as guilty of
negative emotions in contexts in which they expect such
a crime (Bodenhausen, Kramer, & Susser, 1994). By contrast,
emotions to be useful. Consistent with these ideas, partici-
some data suggest that negative emotions tend to lead to more
pants were motivated to increase their experience of anger
systematic processing. For example, participants in a positive
when they expected to complete tasks that required active
mood produced significantly less persuasive arguments,
confrontation, but not those that required collaboration
whereas those in a negative mood produced significantly more
(Tamir & Ford, 2011; Tamir, Mitchell, & Gross, 2008).
persuasive arguments, compared with those in a neutral mood
Note that participants who were happy performed worse
condition (Forgas, 2007). This finding may be, in part, because
on such tasks than those who were angry, regardless of how
positive emotions arise in a safe environment where resources
they wanted to feel (Tamir et al., 2008; Tamir & Ford,
can be devoted to new ventures, whereas negative emotions
2010). Such studies demonstrate that in certain contexts
arise in an environment where resources must be devoted to
positive emotions may not be advantageous, whereas nega-
dealing with existing problems (Bless, Clore, Gosilano, Rabel,
tive ones may be so.
& Schwarz, 1996; Schwarz, 1990). Consistent with these ideas,
There are several reasons why emotions may be beneficial
there are times when happiness can increase creativity (Isen,
under some circumstances and not others. Such reasons span
Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987) but also the likelihood of making
multiple levels of analysis, including physiological, cognitive,
the fundamental attribution error (Forgas, 1998). Happiness
and social. From a physiological perspective, emotions involve
can also make people more gullible (Forgas & East, 2008).
changes that prepare the body for context-relevant action
Of course, people who believe everything they hear can be in
(Ekman, 1992; Levenson, 2003; Plutchik, 1980). For instance,
serious danger when in a hostile environment. Such processing
in negative emotional states (e.g., anger or fear) blood pressure
tendencies, therefore, may be harmless under circumstances
and heart rate increase when blood is pumped to large skeletal
that call for heuristic processing (e.g., choosing a seat on a bus)
muscles at a faster rate than during positive emotional states
but quite detrimental in circumstances that call for analytic pro-
(for a review, see Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, &
cessing (e.g., detecting unidentified objects on a radar). Posi-
Ito, 1993). These physiological mechanisms support vigorous
tive and negative emotions may not always lead to heuristic
and active responses to environmental challenges, such as fight
and systematic processing, respectively (e.g., L.L. Martin,
or flight. Thus, when facing an enemy, for example, people
Ward, Achee, & Wyer, 1993). Nonetheless, as the studies
who lack fear or anger may be at a disadvantage, because their
reviewed indicate, they tend to influence information processing
bodies are not as well prepared to fight.
in distinct and sometimes opposite ways. Thus, there are likely
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
Gruber et al.
circumstances in which the cognitive correlates of positive
feelings) in any way possible or might there be wrong ways
emotions could lead to detriments, whereas those of negative
to pursue it?
emotions could lead to benefits.
Philosophers and researchers have observed that the pursuit
At a social level of analysis, emotions have important inter-
of happiness does not always appear to lead to desired out-
personal consequences (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 1999; Levenson,
comes. In fact, at times, the more people pursue happiness, the
1994; Manstead, 1991). Expressions of anger, for instance, sig-
less they seem to be able to obtain it (Kesebir & Diener, 2008;
nal to others that the person perceives the environment as unfair
also see review chapter by Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein,
and someone else is to blame. Expressions of positive emotions
2003). A particular feature of human goal pursuit might help
signal to others that the person perceives the environment and
explain this peculiar paradox. The goals people value
other people in it as safe and favorable. Given the information
determine not only what people want to achieve but also the
they provide, emotions instigate specific reactions from others
standards against which they evaluate their achievements
and can set the course of social interactions. Research on emo-
(Carver & Scheier, 1981). For instance, people who highly
tions in negotiations, for example, has shown that emotional
value academic achievement will be disappointed when they
expressions can change negotiation outcomes (e.g., Van Kleef,
fall short of their high standards. In the case of academic
De Dreu, & Manstead, 2004). In particular, when the negotiat-
achievement, this feature may not matter for achieving the goal
ing person is of high status, expressing anger leads to greater
at hand because disappointment does not interfere with the pur-
concessions from others, whereas expressions of positive emo-
suit of academic goals.
tions do not (Van Kleef, De Dreu, Pietroni, & Manstead, 2006).
However, in the case of happiness, this feature of goal pur-
Thus, when they are in a position of power and seek to confront
suit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of
rather than to collaborate with others, negotiators who experi-
one's evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incom-
ence more positive and less negative emotions may be less suc-
patible with achieving one's goal (i.e., happiness). This reason-
cessful in the negotiation, in part, because they are happy.
ing leads to the prediction that the more people strive for
Another example is the expression of sadness. Expressions of
happiness, the more likely it is that they will become disap-
sadness signal to others that the person is in need of assistance
pointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their
(e.g., Smith & Lazarus, 1993). Therefore, when people experi-
happiness the more they want it. Disappointment at one's
ence a loss they may benefit from expressing sadness because it
achievements should be most likely in situations that are per-
could facilitate getting help from others. Expressions of posi-
ceived as conducive to high achievement (Wiese, 2007). Thus,
tive emotions, on the other hand, signal to others that all is well.
people who value academic achievement are more likely to feel
These expressions may not be useful if they lead others to offer
disappointed if they get a low grade in an easy class compared
less help (see Hackenbracht & Tamir, in press).
with a hard one, because in this situation the goal seems easily
Whether because of their physiological, cognitive, or social
obtainable. Analogously, the paradoxical effect of valuing hap-
implications, the presence of positive emotions and the absence
piness is likely to depend on the emotional context at hand. In
of negative emotions can be beneficial in some circumstances,
relatively negative situations people can attribute their unhap-
but not in others. When things are going well, the experience of
piness to their circumstances (McFarland & Ross, 1982). For
positive emotions can help people maintain and increase
instance, people are unlikely to be disappointed if they are not
resources and form or strengthen social bonds. However, when
happy after hearing that a close friend was involved in a car
problems arise, the experience of negative emotions, such as
accident. In contrast, in relatively positive situations, people
fear, anger, and sadness, may offer important benefits that pos-
have every reason to feel happy and are likely to feel disap-
itive emotions do not. This idea may be particularly true when
pointed when they do not. For instance, people who are
positive emotions are experienced at extreme levels of intensity
unhappy at their birthday party are likely to be disappointed
(Oishi et al., 2006), but we suggest that the ideas presented in
about not enjoying themselves more. In summary, the more
this section also apply to emotional experiences in low and
people value--and pursue--happiness, the less likely they may
moderate levels of intensity when they occur in the wrong
be to obtain it, especially when happiness appears to be within
Little empirical research to date has directly tested these
ideas. In one study, Schooler and colleagues (2003) found that
Question 3: Are There Wrong Ways to
participants who were told to ``try to make yourself feel as
happy as possible'' while they listened to a piece of hedonically
ambiguous music, reported feeling less positive mood com-
Although the majority of people report feeling fairly happy
pared with a no-instruction control group. Two recent studies
(Diener & Diener, 1996), many people report wanting to be
provide more direct support for the idea that valuing happiness
happier than they already are (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, &
can lead to paradoxical negative effects. In one study, the more
Savino, in press). One corollary of the happiness zeitgeist is
people valued happiness (as indicated by self-report), the less
that people should strive for happiness whenever and however
well-being and the more mental health difficulties, including
possible. However, should people really strive for happiness
depression, they reported (Mauss et al., in press). Importantly,
(i.e., try to maximize positive feelings and minimize negative
this association was found only during times of low life stress,
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
A Dark Side of Happiness?
when people presumably could not attribute their failure to be
& Orsillo, 2005; Tull, Gratz, Salters, & Roemer, 2004).
happy to external circumstances. This finding suggests that
A recent study extended these findings by examining whether
valuing happiness may be associated with less happiness, just
acceptance has prospective effects on well-being (Shallcross,
when happiness is most obtainable (during times of low stress).
Troy, Boland, & Mauss, 2010). The study examined partici-
A second, experimental study examined whether valuing
pants' levels of acceptance and, 3 months later, their level of
happiness causes less happiness (Mauss et al., in press). Parti-
depressive symptoms. A greater tendency to accept negative
cipants were presented with a faux newspaper article, which
feelings predicted lower levels of depressive symptoms, con-
either extolled the advantages of happiness or did not mention
trolling for initial depressive symptoms. Thus, accepting nega-
happiness. After this manipulation, participants watched either
tive feelings--rather than actively trying to make them
a happy or a sad film clip. Results indicated that participants
disappear--may have beneficial outcomes.
who were induced to value happiness felt worse, but only in the
Together, the research reviewed in this section suggests that
context of the happy film, presumably because participants
trying to increase positive emotion can lead to detrimental out-
could not attribute their relative lack of happiness to external
comes, whereas accepting negative emotion can lead to salu-
circumstances. It is important to note that feelings of disap-
tary outcomes. More research is needed to better understand
pointment mediated the effects of valuing happiness on feeling
these intriguing effects. For instance, more work needs to be
unhappy. These findings suggest that the pursuit of happiness
done to understand the mechanisms that link the pursuit of hap-
may lead to maladaptive outcomes because it sets people up for
piness and the avoidance of negative states to deleterious out-
comes. We have shown that disappointment about one's
These findings demonstrate that the pursuit of happiness can
affective state mediates the negative effects of pursuing happi-
have negative effects on individual well-being. Two recent
ness such that pursuing happiness is associated with elevated
studies demonstrated that the pursuit of happiness may also
happiness standards, which sets people up for disappointment
have negative interpersonal effects (Mauss et al., 2011). One
(Mauss et al., in press). Additional mediators that may also con-
study found that the more people value happiness, the lonelier
tribute to the deleterious effects of pursuing happiness include
they feel on a daily basis (assessed with daily diaries over
increased self-monitoring, increased self-focus, decreased
2 weeks). The second study demonstrated that leading people
social engagement, and decreased rumination (cf. Keltner,
to value happiness more resulted in greater loneliness and social
2009; Schooler et al., 2003). These are important areas for
disconnect, as measured by self-reports and a hormonal index
future research, which will further our understanding of the
(decreased progesterone). These findings suggest that wanting
intriguing conclusion that the direct pursuit of happiness can
to be happy can not only decrease people's well-being but also
be a source of dysfunction.
make them lonely. One explanation for this finding might be that
Of course, pursuing happiness (i.e., trying to increase posi-
striving for personal gains (including happiness) may damage
tive feelings and decrease negative ones) is not always self-
connections with others and thus make people lonely.
defeating. Pursuing happiness may lead to positive outcomes
The findings just described suggest that trying to enhance
if people are given the right tools to do so. Tools that may lead
positive emotions might lead to decreased well-being. If that
to lasting increases in happiness and well-being include flex-
is the case, might the converse mindset--namely, accepting
ible and adaptive emotion regulatory abilities (Gross & John,
or not trying to decrease negative feelings--lead to increased
2003; Troy, Shallcross, Wilhelm, & Mauss, 2010), greater
well-being? Theories of mindfulness and acceptance-based
awareness of what will make oneself happy (e.g., Wilson &
therapy make this prediction, arguing that when people accept
Gilbert, 2005), and engagement in happiness-enhancing activ-
negative feelings, those experiences draw less attention and
ities rather than directly pursuing happiness (Lyubomirsky,
less negative meta-emotional evaluation (Hayes, Strohsahl, &
Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). These successful paths to increas-
Wilson, 1999), which in turn leads to greater well-being. This
ing happiness have one thing in common: They avoid the direct
prediction has been borne out in experimental studies of short-
pursuit of happiness and instead lead people to make changes in
term emotional responses (Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, &
their emotion-regulatory habits or in their activities. This anal-
Hofmann, 2006; Hofmann, Heering, Sawyer, & Asnaani,
ysis fits well with the concept of flow and with self-
2009). For example, Levitt, Brown, Orsillo, and Barlow
determination theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Deci & Ryan,
(2004) randomly assigned participants with panic disorder to
2000), which hold that activities lead to greater happiness and
one of three instruction conditions (acceptance, suppression,
well-being if they are engaged in for their own sake rather than
or control) and then gave them a carbon dioxide challenge,
for a reason extrinsic to the activity, even if this reason is as
which can trigger panic. Acceptance participants, compared
seemingly benevolent as gaining happiness.
with participants in the other groups, reported feeling less anx-
ious during the challenge. Other studies suggest that accep-
Question 4: Are There Wrong Types of
tance of negative emotions may also have longer term
positive well-being correlates, in that people who tend to accept
(versus avoid) negative emotions exhibit lower levels of anxi-
According to our definition of happiness, people are happy
ety and depressive symptoms (Kashdan, Morina, & Priebe,
when positive emotions are present and negative emotions are
2009; Orcutt, Pickett, & Pope, 2005; Roemer, Salters, Raffa,
absent. However, there are various types of positive as well as
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
Gruber et al.
negative emotions. For instance, emotions can vary on the
Negative social outcomes associated with the absence of
dimensions of arousal (e.g., excitement vs. calm), approach
embarrassment or guilt (e.g., impaired social connection), in
motivation (e.g., fear vs. anger), and social engagement (e.g.,
turn, are robust predictors of decreased well-being (Cacioppo
compassion vs. pride). Thus, happiness comes in different fla-
et al., 2006; Uchino et al., 1996). Thus, just like the presence
vors, depending on which emotions are represented (e.g.,
of some positive states, the absence of negative states that
Barrett & Russell, 2009; Shiota et al., 2006). Despite these
impair social functions can be damaging.
differences, various types of happiness share a common core
A second group of types of happiness that may have no pos-
of present positivity and absent negativity (Haybron, 2005;
itive or even negative outcomes may be those that are not
Kesebir & Diener, 2008; Sumner, 1999). One might thus argue
aligned with cultural values (Eid & Diener, 2001; Kitayama,
that they all have similar, and positive, effects on human well-
Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000; Oishi & Diener, 2001; Wiese,
being and functioning. However, a more nuanced analysis may
2007). Three dimensions of cultural values appear to moderate
yield that not all types of happiness have adaptive effects on
the effects of happiness on individuals' well-being: arousal,
human functioning and that some types of happiness may even
social engagement, and emphasis on personal hedonic experi-
be a source of dysfunction.
ence. Note that these dimensions are independent of valence.
Relatively little research has systematically examined the
First, cultures vary with regard to how much they value
differential effects of various types of happiness (cf. Bartlett
high-arousal versus low-arousal positive states. For example,
& DeSteno, 2006; Griskevicius, Shiota, & Neufeld, 2010;
Tsai, Knutson, and Fung (2006) demonstrated that in Chinese
Shiota et al., 2006; Tiedens & Linton, 2001). We suggest that
and Chinese-American compared with European-American
two groups of happiness may have no positive or even negative
culture, low-arousal positive states (e.g., contentment) are
effects on a person's well-being. First, some types of happiness
more highly valued than high-arousal positive states (e.g., exci-
appear to impair social functioning, thereby leading to
tement). In turn, discrepancies between ideal and actual levels
decreased well-being. Second, types of happiness that are not
of low-arousal positive states, but not high-arousal positive
aligned with a culture's definition of appropriate happiness
states, are associated with undesirable mental-health outcomes,
may be associated with negative outcomes for the individual.
such as depressive symptoms, among participants of Chinese
Thus, states that impair social functioning or that are incongru-
cultural backgrounds, whereas the opposite is true for partici-
ent with a culture's values may have negative outcomes,
pants of European-American backgrounds.
regardless of their valence (cf. Parrott, 2002). We next review
A second relevant dimension along which cultures vary is
research on each of these two categories of types of happiness.
social engagement. For instance, Japanese culture tends to
First, types of happiness that have no positive--or even neg-
more highly value socially engaged emotions, such as friendly
ative--effects on social processes, such as liking, social con-
feelings or guilt, whereas U.S. American culture tends to more
nectedness, and the formation of long-term, mutually
highly value socially disengaged emotions, such as pride or
satisfying relationships, may have maladaptive outcomes for
anger (Eid & Diener, 2001; Kitayama et al., 2000; Kitayama,
the individual (Anderson, Keltner, & John, 2003; Borkenau
Mesquita, & Karasawa, 2006). In turn, in Japanese participants,
& Liebler, 1992; Fredrickson, 1998; Garland et al., in press;
socially engaged emotions predict well-being more strongly
Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Reis & Patrick, 1996).
than they do in U.S. American participants, whereas the con-
One such positive state is hubristic pride, or pride that is expe-
verse is true for socially disengaged emotions (Kitayama
rienced in the absence of adequate merits (Tracy & Robins,
et al., 2000, 2006). Although valence plays a role in these asso-
2007). Several studies suggest that hubristic pride is associated
ciations, it is not the only factor that matters, suggesting that
with negative social consequences, such as aggressiveness
not every type of happiness is equally adaptive.
toward others and antisocial behavior (Baumeister, Smart, &
A third important dimension along which cultures vary is
Boden, 1996; Tracy, Cheng, Robins, & Trzesniewski, 2009).
personal hedonic experience (Eid & Diener, 2001; Scollon,
These negative social effects, in turn, can have deleterious
Diener, Oishi, & Biswas-Diener, 2004). For example, work
effects on the individual (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley,
by Uchida and colleagues (Uchida & Kitayama, 2009; Uchida,
& Thisted, 2006; Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996).
Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama, 2004) found that in North
Thus, hubristic pride--despite being a positive emotion--may
American cultural contexts, happiness tends to be defined in
engender negative outcomes. Future research is needed, how-
terms of personal hedonic experience and personal achieve-
ever, to understand the potentially negative affective correlates
ment, whereas in East Asian contexts happiness tends to be
and consequences of hubristic pride.
defined in terms of social harmony. On the basis of these find-
Could the absence of some negative states also impair social
ings, one would predict that in North American contexts hedo-
functioning? Research suggests this may be the case for embar-
nic experiences that are contingent on personal achievement
rassment and guilt, negative emotions that serve important
(e.g., high self-esteem, absence of shame) are linked to better
social functions such as appeasement, cooperation, and proso-
outcomes, whereas in East Asian contexts the reverse should
cial behavior (Fessler, 2007; Keltner & Anderson, 2000). Guilt,
be true. Indeed, although shame has maladaptive effects and
for instance, benefits relationships by leading to reparative
is associated with a number of psychopathologies in North
actions in relationships and enhancing empathic concern for
American contexts (Tangney, 1991, 1995), shame is more cul-
others (Tangney, 1991; for a review, see Tangney, 1995).
turally appropriate and adaptive in East Asian cultural contexts
by Iris Mauss on May 19, 2011
A Dark Side of Happiness?
(e.g., Cho, 2000; Li, Wang, & Fischer, 2004; Bedford &
might even lead to harmful consequences. Our hope is that these
Hwang, 2003; Menon & Shweder, 1994; Russell & Yik,
claims will spur further research and that a deeper understanding
1996). Furthermore, Kuppens, Realo, and Diener (2008) have
of when and how happiness is functional and dysfunctional will
argued that some cultural contexts (including relatively collec-
allow us to better harvest its nourishing outcomes while avoid-
tivistic and relatively survival-oriented ones) do not define hap-
ing its downsides.
piness in personal hedonic terms. Accordingly, in these
contexts, personal and hedonic aspects of happiness (either
presence of positive or absence of negative states) predict
We thank the Emotion Regulation Laboratory at the University of
well-being outcomes to a much weaker degree or not at all
Denver, the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory at
(Kuppens et al., 2008). Along similar lines, Fulmer and col-
Yale University, and Paul Piff for comments on drafts of this article.
leagues (2011) found that extraversion (a personality trait char-
acterized by a high degree of positive emotion) is associated
with greater well-being in countries whose culture values pos-
itive emotionality, but not in others. Together, these studies
This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant
AG031967 to Iris B. Mauss and by National Science Foundation Grant
suggest that alignment with a culture's values along the dimen-
SES 0920918 to Maya Tamir.
sions of arousal, social engagement, and focus on personal
hedonic experiences plays a crucial role in the effects of happi-
ness on outcomes.
Clearly, these ideas are relatively new, and much research
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