Life Hack: Don’t Value Happiness, Pursue Positivity

Valuing happiness is not only linked with putting your own mental and physical health at risk; our collective high hopes for happiness may prey upon those experiencing tougher emotional times. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research is breaking through the darkness to reveal that by focusing on how we pursue happiness, we can transform the curse of happiness into a blessing.

Experiencing happiness and what we think about happiness are two separate things. There is no arguing that those that experience greater amounts of happiness in their day-to-day lives bask in the mental and physical health benefits.

The dark side of happiness

Decades of research have reported that those that are happier have higher quality relationships, improved physical health and better work performance. What an advertisement! Who wouldn’t want that? It’s no wonder that an article currently in press indicates that:

“Feeling happy is one of the most highly endorsed values in Western cultures.”

However, three newly published studies add to the ever-increasing body of evidence that placing happiness on a pedestal comes at a potentially life-shattering price. Two of these studies coming from researchers at the University of California, involving a series of scientifically endorsed self-report questionnaires, are the first ever to assess the clinical implications of valuing happiness.

The first paper was based on responses by 510 undergraduate students from Yale University and 241 people recruited from the Denver metropolitan area that were diverse in age and socio-economic status. The aim was to dissect the relationship between valuing happiness and bipolar disorder (BD). What they found was that the extreme valuing of happiness increased risk for developing BD and also increased the likelihood of having a diagnosis of BD in the past.

This was taken into the clinical domain by clinicians rating the manic and depressive symptoms of 32 individuals diagnosed with BD Type I who were currently remitted (neither manic nor depressed) and 30 healthy controls. The value of happiness was stronger for those in remission from BD than healthy controls. There was one more additional worrisome finding: The higher the participants rated happiness, the worse the forecast was for the course of their illness.

The second study involved 98 people remitted from major depressive disorder (MDD) with a history of at least three prior episodes of MDD.

Analysis of their questionnaire responses revealed that the higher value an individual placed on happiness the greater their depressive symptoms were. This link remained strong even when controlling for those prone to neuroticism and commonly misrepresenting themselves in order to manage their image, i.e. those that might fudge their questionnaire answers to look better.

Importantly, the paper also included a randomized controlled trial with results indicating that in comparison with healthy controls, the sample of individuals in remission from MDD placed greater value in happiness, as found for those currently remitted from BD.

Looking at these two papers, on an individual level, overvaluing happiness is fraught with dangers for both those with and recovering from specific mental health problems, as well as the general populace.

Meanwhile, the third research study takes us into the societal and international domains. Drawing on data from whopping 9,000 college students across 47 countries the researchers examined whether an individuals’ life satisfaction is associated with living in contexts in which positive emotions are socially valued. The findings show that:

“People report more life satisfaction in countries where positive emotions are highly valued and this is linked to an increased frequency of positive emotional experiences… They also reveal, however, that increased life satisfaction in countries that place a premium on positive emotion is less evident for people who tend to experience less valued emotional states: people who experience many negative emotions, do not flourish to the same extent in these contexts.”

It is thought that by collectively glorifying happiness, when someone has higher frequencies of negative emotional experiences they stand out like a sore thumb next to societal values of happiness. This may trigger repetitive cycles of unconstructive, negative and self-focused thinking that has negative implications for mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Could this be one of the reasons why we witness some of the happiest and healthiest of us surprisingly plummet into mental ill-health, presumably when bumps on the road of life and associated negative emotions just don’t match with society’s happiness ideals?

Say bye to the dark side of happiness and hello to prioritizing positivity

Thankfully, researchers again coming from Cal U as well as the University of North Carolina have been seeking out an effective approach to happiness, one that stops valuing happiness from boomeranging back and slapping us in the face.

To prevent valuing happiness from backfiring they found that prioritizing positivity was key among 235 US adults (aged 21-65). Those that prioritize positivity are considered to be:

“…putting themselves in situations in which they are likely to experience happiness [and] may thus reap incidental and life-sustaining rewards caused by the positive emotions they experience.”

Specifically, how much someone prioritizes positivity in their life successfully predicted experiencing beneficial features of wellbeing (positive emotions and satisfaction with life) and less negative aspects of wellbeing (negative emotions and depression). In-line with the aforementioned studies and in contradiction to prioritizing positivity, valuing happiness showed the exact opposite trend.

Here is the kicker. Those that more highly prioritize positivity had higher levels of personal and social resources due to having more frequent experiences of positive emotions. Prioritizing positivity significantly predicted higher self-compassion, resilience, mindfulness and positive relations with others, but not fewer illness symptoms, although a trend existed.

The take-home message is that shifting modern society’s focus from valuing happiness and its benefits themselves, to valuing and planning activities and situations that promote positive emotions and thus inadvertently lead to happiness and wellbeing may be the way forward. Prioritizing positivity may not only be the individual difference that makes one person’s pursuit of happiness a success and another a failure, but could also lessen the potentially devastating blow that valuing happiness can have when times get emotionally tough.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some [positivity promoting] object other than their own happiness” ~John Stewart Mill, autobiography (1873)


Bastian B, Kuppens P, De Roover K, & Diener E (2014). Is valuing positive emotion associated with life satisfaction? Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 14 (4), 639-45 PMID: 24749643

Catalino LI, Algoe SB, & Fredrickson BL (2014). Prioritizing positivity: an effective approach to pursuing happiness? Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 14 (6), 1155-61 PMID: 25401290

Ford BQ, Shallcross AJ, Mauss IB, Floerke VA, & Gruber J (2014). DESPERATELY SEEKING HAPPINESS: VALUING HAPPINESS IS ASSOCIATED WITH SYMPTOMS AND DIAGNOSIS OF DEPRESSION. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 33 (10), 890-905 PMID: 25678736

Ford BQ, Mauss IB, & Gruber J (2015). Valuing happiness is associated with bipolar disorder. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 15 (2), 211-22 PMID: 25603134

Image via Ollyy / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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