Is Happiness Always a Good Thing?

Happiness is a component of subjective well-being, and is typically thought of as leading to positive outcomes. But, researchers now report that happiness may not always be as pleasant as it sounds. A review published in Perspectives on Psychological Science reports scenarios in which happiness is not a good thing. The authors claim that not all types and degrees of happiness are equal, and that the pursuit of happiness can actually make people feel worse, instead of better. In fact, people who set a goal of achieving happiness often fall short, leading to unhappiness and depression. When it comes to seeking happiness, setting low expectations might be the key.

The authors also report that too much happiness is not healthy. Extremely happy people do not think as creatively and tend to take more risks than less happy people. An extreme example of this behavior is evident in people who experience mania; these patients often abuse drugs, spend excessive amounts of money, gamble away savings, or seek physical or psychological thrills. Even for people without a mental health disorder, too much happiness can cloud their judgment and prevent them from acting cautiously.

Inappropriate happiness is yet another downside to being happy. If people experience too many positive emotions, they do not experience negative ones such as fear and guilt. These feelings work to balance our emotional well-being and keep our thoughts and actions in check.

Many factors influence happiness. Personality traits, genetics, and cultural variables dictate the value that is placed on happiness and how to achieve it. Each person must then decide for himself what will make him happy and how much he values that happiness. Previous research has shown that very happy people are more social and extraverted than average or unhappy people, and very happy people also had stronger social relationships than other people. But, these very happy people did not exercise, participate in religious or spiritual activities, or experience more positive life events than less happy people. As the authors report, there is no one secret to happiness.

All of this is not to say that happiness is a bad thing. Happiness facilitates setting and achieving goals, strengthens social relationships, and increases physical and psychological health. But, moderation is the key. Happiness is not always the right emotion is every circumstance or every context. Experiencing and acknowledging a range of healthy emotions will, in the end, lead to better overall well-being  than simply feeling happy all the time.


Diener E, Oishi S, & Lucas RE (2003). Personality, culture, and subjective well-being: emotional and cognitive evaluations of life. Annual review of psychology, 54, 403-25 PMID: 12172000

Diener E, & Seligman ME (2002). Very happy people. Psychological science, 13 (1), 81-4 PMID: 11894851

Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (3), 222-233 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406927

Judge TA, Ilies R, & Dimotakis N (2010). Are health and happiness the product of wisdom? The relationship of general mental ability to educational and occupational attainment, health, and well-being. The Journal of applied psychology, 95 (3), 454-68 PMID: 20476826

Mauss IB, Tamir M, Anderson CL, & Savino NS (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion (Washington, D.C.) PMID: 21517168

Weiss A, Bates TC, & Luciano M (2008). Happiness is a personal(ity) thing: the genetics of personality and well-being in a representative sample. Psychological science, 19 (3), 205-10 PMID: 18315789

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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