When Happiness crosses over to the Dark Side

If you’ve come across articles on the lines of ‘How to be Happy’, ‘Top tips to boost your happiness’, ‘Ideas for Cultivating Happiness’, ‘Ways to unlock your Happiness’ - know that you’re not alone in that. We are being flooded with stories which advocate and promote the pursuit of happiness as something which is good for us, for our Mental Health and for our Wellbeing; but have you ever thought about the flip side to Happiness? Would you be surprised if we told you the flip side to pursuing happiness is that it leads to unhappiness? It is now time to rethink the notion around 'The happier you are, the better' - because like a lot of other things, Happiness too has a dark side.



Aesop famously said that “It is possible to have too much of a good thing” & another version of this goes that “too much of a good thing is a bad thing”. Let’s face it, we have all used these lines at some point in our lives. We also know how true these are for almost everything, may it be food, money, leisure, or work; But have you ever thought that if these lines are true for so many different areas of life, it might also be true for happiness? Have you ever pondered if there maybe a ‘dark side’ to happiness? Happiness is generally perceived to be a good thing. We spend a great deal of time pursuing things we believe will make us happy. It is also a common belief that we can all benefit from becoming happier. With the numerous studies available that show happiness and positive emotions are important, how can happiness become a bad thing, right? We may not have given this too much thought, but in reality - there is a dark side to happiness too. Too much happiness can be bad for us, and in some cases, can also lead to unhappiness.


As humans, we are instinctively drawn to the positive. We tend to gravitate towards positive situations, people and energy. Positive energy allows us to process information more accurately which leads to an improved recall process. We learn and grow faster in positive environments, we perform at our best and we are much kinder to others and ourselves. We thrive and feel more fulfilled when surrounded by positive people. So in that case, positivity should be good for us. Happiness is often positively correlated with so many different experiences such as achieving goals, creating good social connections, maintaining relationships and friendships, learning, and even increasing our own well-being and Mental Health. Despite the many good things happiness brings to our lives, recent studies show that happiness has a flip side - and that is a dark one. People who want to feel happier can choose from a multitude of books that tell them how to do it. But setting a goal of happiness can backfire. It’s one of the many downsides of happiness – People who strive for happiness may end up worse off than when they started and might find themselves feeling even more unhappy, sad and unfulfilled.


One of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is problematic is that it makes us negate or overlook other emotions. When we’re completely consumed with trying to be happy all the time, we overlook the value of unhappy emotions, such as anger, embarrassment, and shame, for instance. We have a plethora of emotions for a reason and it is important to embrace and acknowledge them while trying to understand what they are trying to tell us. While so much of our emotions and experiences may not feel very pleasant when they’re happening, but they exist for a reason. Negative emotions help direct our attention to elements of our environment that require a response. For example, fear can keep you from taking unnecessary risks and engages our fight-or-flight response; sadness signals a sense of loss; shame can teach us social norms while guilt can help remind you to behave well toward others. These emotions enable us to meet particular needs in specific contexts. We need these other emotions to be human. If we focus on only being happy, we may end up feeling happiness inappropriately. It is vital to know that happiness is not suited to every situation. Having a range of emotions help us to adapt to a wide range of circumstances, challenges, and opportunities. It’s not healthy to feel happy when you see someone crying over the loss of a loved one or when you hear a friend was injured in a car crash. Our other feelings help us to avoid what some call ‘inappropriate affect’. As human beings, we have evolved different emotions to serve specific functions and happiness is no exception. Just as we would not want to feel angry or sad in every context, we should not want to experience happiness in every context.


Happiness is definitely not a one-size-fits-all. In fact, happiness has many flavours and varieties such as being in a high state of arousal or joy, having feelings of love, compassion and being connected to others, and also feeling pride about oneself. But some of these specific states of happiness can lead to unhealthy outcomes if left unchecked. For instance, feeling good about your accomplishments is only a short distance from pride and arrogance, which in certain forms can lead to less connection with others, and more aggressive or antisocial behaviour in extreme cases. An excessive level of a any emotion can be unhealthy and may lead to maladaptive behaviour and thoughts. The secret lies in moderation – everything in a balanced quantity. Excessive extreme happiness swings are unhealthy for us and may even come at a cost. It can make people feel less attuned to threats in the environment which can put them in danger in the short or long term - such as a failing to take notice of a man lurking in the dark shadows of a parking lot or signs that your company might be considering eliminating your job. But extreme degrees of happiness can also lead to mania, binge eating, alcohol consumption, substance use and risky or reckless behaviour which one wouldn’t otherwise indulge in.


We are likely to set ourselves up for disappointment by how highly we value happiness and by how we persistently pursue it. During these instances, we become more prone to experiencing the dark side of happiness. We can avoid this dark side, and continue to let happiness work for us, by not trying too hard to be happy. We need to also be mindful that at times the chase for happiness itself can backfire. For instance, the more we value happiness, it turns out, the more unhappy we will become. This is owing to the fact that the more we focus on just being happy, the more unhappy and disappointed we tend to feel when the expected event doesn’t deliver a bigger boost. This in turn makes us more unhappy as we built several expectations in our anticipation of being and feeling very happy which may have also been unrealistic to an extent. As they say, if we chase and try to reach for happiness with both hands, the chances are greater than it will abandon us.


Happiness, despite its flip side, is still generally a good thing and it is still something we can benefit from. The negative effects of happiness are likely experienced when we have way too much of it, but the good news is that there are a few ways in which we can avoid this pitfall and allow ourselves to increase our wellbeing. We can do this by:

  • Accepting our emotions. Remember that we benefit from all our emotions, even our negative ones, just as much as we benefit from positive ones. Accepting and embracing what we are feeling in the moment can help us stay balanced, be mindful and be content.

  • Savour our experiences. Sometimes, we are so focused on what we want to get out of an experience that we end up zoning out of it as it happens. Alternatively, we may have such high expectations that these are often detached from the reality of the experience and can lead to a greater feeling of unhappiness. Savouring experiences while they happen also allows us to gain more appreciation for and from them.

  • Engage in wellbeing activities. It can greatly help to engage in activities that we enjoy and that boost our overall wellbeing instead of directly chasing after happiness. These activities may be things that help us change our habits, live a healthier lifestyle, focus on our Mental Health, improve our relations which those we love, or even increase our self-awareness. Engaging in such activities can help us discover something new about ourselves and may also help us set ourselves up for success.


In recent times, especially with the ‘pop-psychology’ and punchlines like ‘Good vibes only’, ‘Don’t worry, be Happy’, and ‘Keep smiling’, we have developed a tendency to hype-up how important it is to be happy. Yes, happiness is important, but it’s also important to remember that anything in excess can be a bad thing, even happiness. So, if we want to lead a meaningful life, maybe it’s time we stop chasing happiness so aggressively and instead focus on engaging in meaningful activities which bring us a sense of connection, fulfilment and enrichment.

 

Written by: Yash Mehrotra


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March, 2021