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‘life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness’

Publishing Date : 14 May, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

I was watching Brene Brown’s talk on Netflix the other day where she spoke about how when things are going ‘too good’ for us we tend to fearfully look over our shoulder trying to anticipate when it is all going to fall apart or when something bad is going to happen to us and our happiness is snatched away. I can totally relate.


Are she and I almost alone in this or is it a common thing when you feel happy for doubts such as anxiety and depression to lurk in the background, whispering that it might not last and waiting for disaster to pounce? It makes me wonder what it is about happiness that we all find quite so intimidating?

Maybe it’s because worry is our default position?  In the words of Mark Mason “We are evolved to be miserable and insecure to a certain degree because it's the mildly miserable and insecure creature who is going to do the most work to innovate and survive”. When I feel that it can all be taken away and I mustn’t take anything for granted, I work all that little bit harder (probably a lot harder) to make sure I stay in the game.

But we aren’t supposed to be happy all the time and if we were how would we know what happiness really is as we would surely lose perspective?  Besides, would we really want to be happy all the time?  Although my gut feel reaction is a huge, big fat ‘yes’, I wonder if there can there be something like too much happiness?

Last year there was an article on WebMD written by a Dr. Robinson talking about too much of a good thing being bad for you. The article shares how too much exercise can damage our joints and even lead to osteoporosis in women; and sleeping beyond the recommended eight hours can increase the risk of heart problems  Normal activities such as having sex, washing your hands, and eating healthy food, when done excessively, can all lead to serious health problems. She even explains that drinking too much water, to its extreme, can lead to death.

In the field of psychology, we consider very strong personality traits, skills, and abilities as sometimes demonstrating how a good thing can become a bad thing. Self-confidence, conscientiousness, and intelligence, when taken to an extreme, can become maladaptive behaviours.  Self-confidence can come across as arrogance or narcissism while a person who is overly conscientious, can be perceived as a perfectionist, these have some times been referred to as the dark side of personality. But what about happiness – can too much of that be a bad thing and does happiness also have a dark side?

 “A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good” published in 2012 talks about how the pursuit of happiness does not always contribute to positive outcomes.  Research has shown that being, “too happy” or “too positive” can mean an intense level of happiness.  A person who is extremely happy, and always happy, may not be completely in touch with reality. This disengagement, as a person experiences intense levels of happiness, may lead to risky behaviours and dysfunction in certain areas of our life.

Some other findings of research have found that if you are too happy you pay less attention to details because, in a nutshell, happiness tells us that things are good and when things are good, we are more likely to process global information first instead of local information. This means that we see the big picture first before paying attention to the important, small details.  When we are in a neutral or sad state, it tells us that something might be missing or be wrong. This triggers to go through a more analytical process and pay more attention to life’s small print.
Other studies have pointed to happiness stifling creativity, participating in risky behaviour and a whole host of other negative things. Here are some interesting facts highlighted in The Washington Post: Experiencing high life satisfaction when you are young can impact the income you earn later on in life (suggesting that tougher ,and by inference, less happy, youthful  experiences will impact your future earnings positively); similarly, there is a higher likelihood for students who are extremely happy to drop out of school compared to those who are moderately happy; extreme positive emotions can make us more prone to stereotypical thinking, such as making decisions based on gender and cheerful people find it more difficult to detect a lie, thus being more easily deceived than those in a negative mood.

So here’s the thing.  Happiness is a transient state, a fleeting emotion that comes and goes, just like its opposite - unhappiness – and if you don’t sometimes feel the ‘down’ of the latter , you will never appreciate the ‘up’ of the former.   Like most things in the human condition, it all comes down to a question of balance, of yin and yang, of light and dark, of highs and lows.  Too much of one and not enough of the other is an unnatural state of being, even when the ‘one’ is perceived as being good, better or best and if ‘happy’ were synonymous with ‘satisfied’ our lives would simply stagnate.  Happiness is elusive.  It’s the chase, not the capture that is the spice of life and think how bland that would otherwise taste!



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