What does it mean to be happy?
Happiness is at essence the experience of positive feelings. Feeling more positive emotions than negative ones would seemingly make for a happy person.
But happiness is also a highly subjective experience. The way we contrast or amplify positive events compared to negative ones can lead to more misery than joy. And seeking happiness can instead lead to even more unhappiness.
If you read the book The Upside of Your Dark Side, you’ll find that the science in this area can be a bit strange. Let’s look at some of the counterintuitive research results about the pursuit of happiness.
1. Happiness can interfere with long-term success
Research shows that happy people are generally less persuasive, too trusting, and lazy thinkers. They also find it harder to escape deeply ingrained biases. The common thread from the studies reveals that happy people tend to rely on cursory, superficial strategies to collect information from the outside world.
The “lazy thinking” outcome brings to mind the Kurt Cobain lyric, “I think I’m dumb, or maybe just happy.” Considering how things turned out for him, the trade off between success and happiness gets fairly complicated.
2. The pursuit of happiness can backfire
Research further shows that when you enter into a situation with the goal of becoming happier, you actually make happiness less likely to occur. Overvaluing happiness, however, is only problematic in certain situations, depending on the contrast with the mood you begin with.
One study found that listening to great music with the goal of becoming happier led to dramatically less happiness than simply listening to the music. Another study that primed subjects to expect to be happy after watching a comedy film ended up disappointed compared to those who enjoyed the film without expectations.
3. Sometimes bad feelings result in good outcomes
The strategic use of anger can be way more effective than putting on a happy face, research shows. And sadness can go a long way toward getting your way.
Generally, anger works better than happiness when confronting a wrongdoer. Expressing anxiety beats happiness when trying to prevent a looming danger. And sadness trumps happiness when recruiting others to help handle loss or personal difficulties.
4. Your performance is affected by the happiness of others
This is fascinating for those in a leadership position. Just remember that happiness tends to lead to big-picture thinking, and unhappiness leads to detail-oriented thinking.
Research shows that “with a happy leader, followers performed 200 percent better on the creative task than they did for an unhappy leader, and when the leader displayed signs of sadness, followers performed 400 percent better on the analytical task.” Strategically adjusting your mood when inspiring your troops, depending on the task, works much better than being a constantly “happy shiny” person.
All of that said, the point of this is not to dump on happiness. Instead, just realize that when it comes to being happy, doing the things you want to do and embracing your full self is more important than some abstract pursuit.
I think this quote sums it up well:
- If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator. ~ W. Béran Wolfe
As always, go further. Do the things you want to pursue, become the person you want to be, and the happiness thing will work itself out.
- The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment
And to think that some people thought that me being ornery all these years was a bad thing. I'm happily smirking at them right now. 😉
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