On more than one occasion I have been mildly chided for being “too happy”. While I don’t consider myself sickeningly exuberant, I am, in general, an optimist; which is not to say I am immune to life’s heartaches. Never-the-less I guess that irritates some people. But it did make me think. I know that in general, too much of a good thing can actually be—well, no good at all. For example, once a year I enjoy a magnificent zeppola di San Giuseppe; a fried Italian pastry , filled with custard, lightly dusted with confectioner’s sugar and finished with a maraschino cherry on top. Fortunately, they are only on display at pastry shops around the time of St. Joseph’s Day (Father’s Day in Italy), the 19th of March. Heaven knows if they were available every day of the year, I would be a regular at my favorite Italian bakery and gradually either morph into a cannon ball, or get physically sick from eating a half-dozen in one sitting. So yes, moderation in most things, is key. But come on; happiness?? Can we ever be just too darned happy?
As it turns out, the answer is YES…and NO.
Let me be clear, I ran across no studies that indicate happiness is a bad thing; in fact, happiness is an agreed upon good thing, and has a number of benefits in every age category. Moreover, happy people seem to be more successful in all areas of life—from work, to love, to health—than are unhappy people. What researchers found, however, when taking a closer look, was that there are certain situations where ultra-happiness is productive and other situations where it may be counterproductive.
There are many definitions of happiness, and those definitions vary among individuals, but for the most part, we are referring to subjective well-being—a feeling of positive emotion and life satisfaction. Some experts define happiness as the presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect. But here’s the rub: there are situations where being 100% satisfied with things as they are will kill your motivation to take action in ways that might improve your circumstances. Sometimes negative emotions can be productive. Fear, for example, keeps me from walking down a dark alley in a strange neighborhood at night alone. I can whistle zip-a-dee-do-dah (yeah, okay, I still love that song) all I want, but that won’t help me avoid danger. Similarly, anxiety about my knee pain motivates me to see a physical therapist so I can get out of pain. A certain amount of stress keeps me on target in meeting my writing deadlines, and memorizing my theater scripts. A strong superego (i.e., guilt) keeps me from violating my own moral code.
Thus, when a person’s situation is less than ideal, being happy but not 100 -percent happy, leaves room for the kind of uneasiness that can lead to positive changes. If an uber-happy person is in a low paying job with no chance of advancement, (s)he may not put in the effort to get a better paying job that would cover the monthly bills; or fail to pursue a more challenging career because there is no motivation to seek more education or training.
Thus when overly happy people are in bad circumstances, they may become complacent and not seek to improve their situation. Too much happiness becomes an obstacle to making positive changes in such cases.
On the other hand, there are other situations where maximum happiness is a good thing. For instance in relationships, where being totally positive can help you overlook some of the more irritating flaws of our partners, family, and friends. Being totally content with your circumstances may have a positive impact on the stability of a marriage, for example, where you do want avoid making such changes, as searching for another partner.
Researchers examined how respondents rated their overall life satisfaction on a 10-point scale on The World Values Survey Data. They also examined other variables such as relationship satisfaction, highest level of education completed, volunteer status, and political participation. They found that the highest possible life satisfaction score was correlated to satisfying volunteer work and relationship status; whereas moderately high levels of satisfaction (i.e., less than maximum) were more useful when it came to income, education, and political participation –all variables that can improve our life circumstances if we are motivated to take action to make changes.
So have no fear about pursuing what Aristotle considered to be the ultimate goal in lifeàHAPPINESS. Just make sure you can gauge when complacency is keeping you from improving your situation when change is called for.
Shigehiro, O., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2007). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science. Vol 2(4) pp 346-360.
© Raeleen Mautner, LLC