Why You Sometimes Need Less Happiness—Here’s When

Imagine that you could guarantee your happiness. How happy would you want to be? Would you go for “Can’t complain,” or maybe “Delighted,” is more your style? Perhaps you’d want to be “Jubilant” or even “Ecstatic!”

If some happiness is good, is more even better? If so, when?

For thousands of years philosophers have debated this. Researchers have explored whether there really is such a thing as too much happiness or an extreme amount of strengths. It probably isn’t a surprise to you that all positive traits, states, and experiences have costs, and high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.

Researchers say that while overall, happiness interventions and activities have been valuable for improving psychological well-being and for reducing the symptoms of depression, this may lead people to believe that more is better. Strengths (positive traits) and positive emotions (happiness) can have a dark side, too. Researchers tell us that at very high levels, nearly all positive effects actually begin to turn negative.

Consider these examples:

  • Moderate levels of positive emotion enhance creativity, but very high levels do not.
  • While happier people live longer on average, intensely happy people engage in risky behaviors and live shorter lives.
  • Moderately happy people, the ones we call chronically happy (or happy over a long period of time), earn significantly more than their unhappy counterparts. However, extremely happy people actually earn lower salaries!
  • Moderate levels of optimism support your confidence and improve planning skills, but very high optimism, or what we call “unrealistic optimism”, can lead to a lack of awareness of risks and therefore poor preparation when facing challenges.
  • Even character strengths, including those that are widely associated with happiness, such as love, gratitude, zest, optimism, and curiosity, cease to be ineffective at very high levels. They can even lead to unhappiness and danger.
  • People with unrealistically high beliefs in themselves may stick with a strategy that dooms them to failure instead of second-guessing themselves.

As you leave summer fun behind and dig into the back-to-school vibe, remember to check in with your emotions and evaluate your behavior with honesty. If instead of prepping for an exam or speech or interview you read sub-Reddits, binge-watch comedy on Netflix, or play Fortnight, you’ll find yourself entertained in the moment but both too tired and too anxious to successfully dig into your work. An amount of happiness that “keeps it real” (and keeps you honest about the amount of prep needed) is important.

Too much of a good thing is just that. Need some help with your balancing act? I’m here to help. Contact me.

About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.