Westerners are obsessed with happiness. Bookshelves groan under the weight of tomes on the topic. Scholarly journals are stuffed with articles on who has the most happiness and how everyone else can get their share, too. The happiest among us wear that experience as a badge of honor.

Why not? Who wouldn’t want to be happy?

But the relentless pressure to be happy has a dark underside. It seems to be making us sadder and lonelier. That’s what Brock Bastian and his colleagues have shown in their research.

Research on the Implications of the Social Pressure to Be Happy

The researchers recruited 200 college students and measured their beliefs about what society expected of them with regard to negative emotions. They also assessed the students’ chronic levels of depression and loneliness. In addition, the students were given smartphones to record their feelings in their everyday lives. Every day for a week, the smartphones beeped 10 times a day. The beeps were prompts for the students to report how depressed, angry, sad, anxious, stressed, and lonely they were feeling at that moment.

The students’ beliefs about what society expected from them were measured by their agreement with statements such as:

  • “Society generally expects people NOT to feel negative emotion.”
  • “People like me less when I feel negative emotion.”
  • “I think society accepts people who feel negative emotion as normal.” [Scores on this item were reversed.]

Loneliness was measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale (sample question: “How often do you feel lonely?”) and depression was assessed by the CES-D scale, in which participants report the frequency with which they experience various symptoms, such as crying spells.

Evidence for the Toxicity of the Pressure to Be Happy

Several ways of looking at the results all suggested that the social pressure to be happy seems to have the ironic effect of making us feel lonelier.

First, the people who were most likely to feel lonely were those who believed most strongly that society expects people not to feel negative emotions.

Second, people who are more depressed consistently feel lonelier than those who are less depressed. But the link between feeling depressed and feeling lonely is even stronger for people who believe most strongly that society expects them not to feel negative emotions.

Third, in the daily diary study, loneliness was more intense for the people who believed most strongly that society expects them not to feel negative emotions. And, the more often they actually did experience negative emotions, the more those toxic social expectations were linked to loneliness.

Why Is This Happening?

People realize that negative emotions are socially devalued. We are expected to feel happy, not sad or angry or anxious or depressed. The more we believe that our negative emotions are frowned upon, the worse it is for us when we are feeling bad. We think other people don’t want to hear about our inner emotional lives when we aren’t feeling so great, and that makes us feel disconnected from them and therefore lonely.

As the authors put it:

“…well-meaning messages may set up unachievable goals for some…when people perceive the social pressure to be happy and not sad they tend to feel socially disconnected from those around them – they feel sad and lonely in a world full of seemingly happy faces.”

Reference:

Bastian, B., Koval, P., Erbas, Y., Houben, M., Pe, M., & Kuppens, P. (2015). Sad and alone: Social expectancies for experiencing negative emotions are linked to feelings of loneliness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 496-503.