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The Downside of Happiness









There’s a lot of talk about happiness these days. In some ways, the message from the media in general is that happiness is the goal of life and that attaining happiness is the ultimate success. We look around at our friends and wonder what’s wrong with us that we can’t find happiness. We seek that golden emotion through whatever means we can. We use drugs, we drink, and we buy lots of possessions that we often can’t afford.  Sometimes we fake being happy, “All is wonderful, couldn’t be better.”   In the current push for happiness, some truths about the downside of happiness may be overlooked. In other words, there’s a down side.

Intense positive experiences can be costly. One way this happens is that if you have an extremely happy moment, like you make the winning score for your team to win the national championship, then other more routine but pleasant events may seem unimportant. In addition, if you tend to turn up the intensity of your positive experiences, then you probably also are more likely to experience more intense feelings when events don’t go well. You start to value happiness so much that when you don’t have it, the loss is powerful.

Too much happiness can lead to other problems. One study followed children from the 1920s to old age and found that those who died younger were rated as highly cheerful by their teachers. Researchers have found that people who are feeling extreme amounts of happiness may not think as creatively and also tend to take more risks. They minimize the downside of actions and tend to consider primarily positive in making decisions. That’s unwise as taking risks can be lethal. Happiness can interfere with your success.  One way this happens is that happens is that people who are happy tend to be less detail oriented. Apparently, attention to detail is the type of thinking that characterizes unhappy moods. With their attention to detail, less happy people are more likely to be more persuasive when they express their assessment of a produce or a work plan.

When you’re happy, you don’t want anything to interfere with your mood. You may react even stronger to difficult situations. Happy people tend to expect things to go week because of their bias toward remembering and overvaluing their accomplishments. They may not want critical feedback and may not learn from their mistakes. In addition, happy people can be too trusting.  Because they don’t pay attention to the details, they aren’t so good at picking up on the subtle signs of deceit.  Noticing deceit requires paying close attention to facial expressions, eye movement and the language that someone is using.

When people are happy they are able to detect lying only about 49 % of the time.  That’s not even as good as chance. When people are unhappy, even the same people, they can detect liars about 62 % of the time. That’s a pretty important skill. Being able to judge the honesty of your employees or applicants to take care of your children is pretty important.

People who don’t experience much sadness or anxiety are reportedly rarely dissatisfied with their jobs. They feel less pressure to get more education or change careers. So in some ways, happiness can keep you from growing and learning. The idea isn’t to not feel happy. It’s to realize that your emotions all serve a purpose and feeling happy all the time is not really natural or helpful.  Happiness will come and go just like sadness, anger and fear.  It’s all just part of life.

What about you? Would you choose to be happy all the time if you could?

Reference Kashdan, T. and Biswas-Diener, R. The Upside of Your Dark Side:  Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2014.

Note: The Emotionally Sensitive Person: Finding Peace When Your Emotions Overwhelm You is now available at bookstores, on the New Harbinger website, and on other online bookstores. Thank you to everyone who helped make this book possible.

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The Downside of Happiness

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2014). The Downside of Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Nov 2014
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