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