Why Happiness Makes Me Grumpy (aka: The Limitations of Aiming for a Happy Workplace)

Most serious positive psychology researchers would agree with the idea that happiness should not be an objective.   But in my experience the message gets lost in translation, certainly among the many life coaches and pop psychologists who advocate the implementation of happiness strategies.

Even with heavyweight researchers the message gets blurred, for example:

  • Organisations like Livehappier.com and Action for Happiness argue that happiness is “the eternal quest of every generation since the first human beings” and argue that we should therefore try to create happy workplaces.
  • On Barbara Fredrickson’s website she writes: “experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine“.
  • Professor Tim Sharp relentlessly tweets about happiness, for example: “Stop; slow down; reflect; just be…happy” and “Live longer with happiness!”

The message is that happiness is correlated with all sorts of benefits – from health to productivity – so we should logically seek to attain happiness, right?

Well, no.

Happiness as an objective (whether individual or organisational) is hugely problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. If we have happiness as our goal, then unhappiness has to be avoided.  In this way individuals are encouraged to ignore, change or avoid negative emotions rather than accepting them as normal.  This can lead to experiential avoidance – a psychological phenomena which has been linked to a huge number of mental health problems (Hayes and Masuda, 2004).
  2. Thoughts and emotions are not within our control.  As natural responses to the environment, there is very little evidence to suggest that negative thoughts can be avoided.  We also have an ability to manufacture great unhappiness from pleasant events, and happiness from disaster (Gilbert, 2006).
  3. Trying to be happier can backfire.   A study by Ng and Diener found that those high in neuroticism did not benefit from cognitive reappraisal strategies and Woods (2009) found that positive self-statements provoke contradictory thoughts in those with low self-esteem.
  4. Trying to be happy ignores context.  I am motivated more often by fear, anger, jealousy and even desperation than I am by happiness.  Is happiness the ‘right’ response to inequality or corruption?  I would argue that the world needs a focus on happiness no more than it does on anger.
  5. What drives happiness is often short term.  For example, my mind will be unhappy at the prospect of going for a run, or of receiving negative feedback.  Yet these are precisely the actions which drive longer term wellbeing, performance and meaning.
  6. Happiness only drives some aspects of performance.  Linking happiness with performance is like saying extraversion is good because it is associated with success in sales.  Happiness is indeed useful for creative tasks (Fredrickson, 2005) but it is less useful for tasks like risk management (García, Sabaté, Puente, 2010).
  7. Lack of theory.  There is no theoretical reason why happiness should be exalted above other emotions.  It does not tap into any theory of language or cognition which can explain how human minds work, and so no model can be empirically tested.

However, happiness sounds good and it correlates with some nice outcomes.  So let’s pump it out there and hope for the best!  I get grumpy about this for two reasons:

  1. By focusing on happiness we fail to equip people with the tools to live more vital, fulfilling lives in practice. Plus we risk adding a second source of stress when people fail to feel happy.
  2. It means the people I compete with get an easier sell than I do.  And that makes me grumpy!

By focusing on happiness, Positive Psychology reinforces (whether overtly or not) the idea that we must change something within ourselves before we can be successful, productive, and healthy.

If we buy that idea we set ourselves up for a battle we cannot win – and risk creating enemies of our own minds.

14 thoughts on “Why Happiness Makes Me Grumpy (aka: The Limitations of Aiming for a Happy Workplace)

  1. Rob, I love this post. You make a compelling arguement and I agree with you. However, I think the desire to be happy is natural. It feels good, so we want it. But as we grow wiser, we realise that happiness is quite paradoxical, chasing it rarely ends well.

  2. I really love this as well. As Rachel said, it is natural to want to by happy and what I would emphasise is the pursuit meaning (valued living), rather than what is generally called happiness. Valued living is also highly correlated with all the good stuff 🙂
    Enjoying your blogs!

  3. Hi Rob- small point but I don’t think Seligman is associated with happier.com. His website still uses the word “happiness” though: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx Seligman tells the very funny story about fighting with his publisher over the title of “Authentic Happiness”. Seligman didn’t want the word “happiness” in the title, but the publisher prevailed. Note that Seligman’s later books include “Learned Optimism”, “Raising the Optimistic Child” and “Flourish” – nary a happy word among them!

    On a more meaningful point, I completely agree with you that “happiness” is not and CANNOT be the end-all of positive psychology. In fact, i attended a great talk recently about the difference between happiness and meaning (and let’s also remember that happiness is just ONE of MANY positive emotions…). In case you are interested, my blog on that topic is here: http://www.lvsconsulting.com/2012/11/04/perception-of-time-and-positive-psychology/

    1. Lisa – Your response is dead-on. Happiness is only one aspect of what Seligman references in “Flourish” (2011). His presentation with TED in 2004 gives this greater emphasis, noting that a state of eudaimonia is fleeting and satiating. Thank you for providing a clarifying voice to the value of PP.

  4. Hi all, thanks so much for your comments.
    Rachel – agree it’s natural to want to be happy, and I know this is one of your primary concerns when discussing this. It’s a very pragmatic view and as usual you ‘meet people where they are’. I just feel drawn to complaining about how we do a lousy job of explaining the dangers and pitfalls.
    Alison – I couldn’t agree more that meaning is a better objective. In fairness to Seligman et al, this is usually clearly explained (eudaimoni vs hednoic happiness etc) but I do feel my point about getting lost in translation is valid. Thank you for reading our blog and look forward to hearing more about your work.
    Lisa – thank you so much for your comments too. I researched this post a while ago and at that point I am sure Seligman was part of happier.com, but you are quite correct he does not seem to be associated with it any more (if he ever was) so I have taken that reference down. You are a real model for positive psychology in my view. Always open and receptive to new ideas and criticism, and always guided by the science. I really appreciate your openness, even to grumpy posts like mine. I think ACT and contextual behavioural science has so much to offer PP, so I am delighted to find you on this blog. I will definitely now check out yours….

  5. Hi Rob, great article as usual, but I’m with Rachel on this one. i think it is natural to want to pursue happiness and while I agree with your points on one level, i also think that valuing happiness does not have to be as bad as you make it sound. To respond to your points above:
    1. I think it’s possible to have happiness as a goal while still accepting unhappiness as a part of the human experience.
    2. Same as above . . the fact that negative emotions cannot be avoided does not mean that one cannot pursue more positive experiences while being mindful of negative ones.
    3. “Trying to be happy can backfire.” This is true of any pursuit in life (trying to be healthy, trying to find meaning, trying to help others.) Things don’t always work out according to plan and different populations may be more susceptible to pitfalls and setbacks than others.
    4. I agree with your point about “trying to be happy ignores context.” But this kind of assumes a “happiness at all costs” mentality. I think it is possible to incorporate contextual processes into a pursuit of happiness. It is possible to mindfully pursue happiness or to recognize situations in which, all else being equal, happiness is the preferable state. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you wouldn’t sacrifice happiness, or the pursuit of it, for the right contextual scenario.
    5. Regarding happiness being “short-term”. This is true in one sense and much of human misery comes from short-term thinking. But I do think when most people consider their “pursuit” of happiness they are not only striving for short-term hedonics but also for long-term satisfaction with the choices they have made. I think of the ideal state of happiness as “preferences realized and validated.” Meaning, you did what felt good in the moment and it turned out to be the right decision for the kind of life you wanted to live. I realize that meaning and fulfillment often require the sacrifice of short-term pleasure which then comes down to a prioritization of different types of happiness and time perspectives.
    6. Your point is valid and ties in to the contextual point above.
    7. Perhaps there is not a strong theoretical basis for pursuing happiness but it does seem to be how we are wired. I think our minds usually create explanations for our emotional experiences to help us better understand the world around us. On a certain level, we learn to approach positive experiences and avoid negative ones, although I can appreciate having the ability to experience and learn from these emotions without being a slave to them. Sometimes we choose to experience more negative and less positive because of other values that we hold.
    I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” as it sounds a bit more aggressive and “attached” than I am comfortable with. But I’m not ready to throw happiness out with the bathwater, so I think of it in terms of “tilting towards the positive.” This is not happiness at all costs, but preferring happiness when all other things are equal.
    Thanks for the thought provoking article!

  6. HI Jeremy,

    so sorry for the late reply. Thanks so much for taking the time to post such an interesting, open and thoughtful reply. You know how much we (both) admire you and of course each of your points is interesting and well argued and deserve far more time than I have now.

    I do however have a question on your point 7. I don’t think we are wired for anything other than survival, are we? Surely our minds are meaning machines (meaning in its most literal sense) and that is its essential purpose? I don’t think we are wired to pursue happiness so much as safety / survival. What I think you mean is that humans are motivated to move towards something that we *call* happiness. But this is where I think the problem lies, because this could be both long-lasting values-based fulfilment or it could simply be relief from uncertainty / fear. This rule works well for problems ‘outside the skin’ (as you acknowledge) but it can be disastrous when applied internally, and I do not think we are telling this story enough. If we experience relief from avoiding difficult emotions and call that happiness (which I think many people do) then that is paradoxically a recipe for misery. My view is that *only* by letting go of the battle to control how we feel can we truly improve our lives.

    Whilst I think it is tempting to want to tilt our lives to the positive, and we have to meet people where they are, we also have a responsibility to tell the complicated version of the story. My worry is that this very rarely happens. I do see however people making money from ‘happiness makes you more productive’ etc.

    And one final point, Rachel said that as we get older we:
    “grow wiser, we realise that happiness is quite paradoxical, chasing it rarely ends well”.
    I think this *can* happen, but doesn’t very often. I think many people live their whole lives pursuing their version of happiness through distraction, avoidance and generally numbing themselves to pain. And I think that’s partly because we are not being clear about what the science is really saying, so it is not something that people hear very often. Happiness feels like a natural thing to move towards, and society certainly teaches us this is so, but it is also a trap from which many people never emerge.

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