Is It Possible To Be Too Happy?







Happiness is certainly one of the goals most people seek. It confers important benefits in terms of success and achievement, personal relationships, and health. But is it possible for people to be too happy? Initially, you might be tempted to answer “No! The more, the better!” But a basic principle of life is that there can, sometimes, be too much of a good thing. For instance, have you ever heard the expression “Too smart for their own good?” That captures an important idea: Even characteristics or conditions that are generally beneficial can be overdone, with the result that they produce negative rather than positive outcomes. Another example: People can be too confident, so that they try to perform tasks or activities beyond their capabilities, and get into serious trouble. Does this apply to personal happiness? Surprisingly, there are strong grounds for suggesting that it does.


First, a theory proposed by Oishi, Diener, and Lucas (2007) concerned with the effects of well-being on task performance (optimum level of well-being theory) suggests the existence of a curvilinear relationship between positive affect and performance of many tasks. This theory proposes that for any specific task, there is an optimum (i.e., best) level of subjective well-being. This theory suggests that for any task or life domain, there is an optimum level of well-being (or in the present context, positive affect)—a level that is associated with maximum performance. Up to that point, performance on many different tasks improves, but beyond it, performance declines. Research findings provide strong support for this prediction. Across studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants, performance on many different tasks relating to career success, income, and educational attainment, performance has been found to increase with subjective well-being, but only up to a specific point, beyond which further increments in well-being are linked to declines. As you might guess, the precise pattern of findings varies with the tasks or life domain being considered. For instance, although income, educational attainment, and career success show a curvilinear relationship with positive affect, measures of satisfaction with social relationships do not: rather, they continue to increase with further increments in positive affect (or well-being). Oishi et al. (2007) explain these contrasting patterns as follows. For tasks related to achievement (e.g., career success, education), very high levels of positive affect may foster complacency or satisfaction, with the result that motivation and effort are reduced. Thus, performance declines at very high levels of positive affect.


For personal relationships, in contrast, high levels of satisfaction may contribute to happier relationships and reduced desire to seek other partners. Whatever the precise reason, existing evidence does offer support for the view that for many tasks involving achievement or accomplishment—which play a key role in entrepreneurial activity—the relationship between positive affect (as a proxy for well-being) and performance is curvilinear rather than linear in nature. Why, specifically, would very high levels of subjective well-being lead to reductions in performance on many tasks? Several possibilities exist. For example, very high levels of subjective well-being may be related to cognitive errors, such as over-optimism, over-confidence, and the planning fallacy (the false belief that more can be accomplished in a given period of time than is actually true). Furthermore, it may encourage heuristic thinking, which sometimes can prevent individuals from recognizing important information in a new situation. High levels of subjective well-being can also lead to complacency: When people are feeling very satisfied with their lives, they have little reason to exert effort and work hard on various tasks. Rather, they may “take it easy,” since they are already quite satisfied. Research evidence indicates that all these effects actually do occur, and in a wide range of settings. For instance, entrepreneurs’ success in running their new businesses increases as their dispositional tendency to feel positive or happy increases, but only up to a point; beyond that, their success (and that of their businesses) declines. And these declines appear to stem from the fact that very high levels of dispositional positive affect (i.e., a tendency to be very happy much of the time) can interfere with basic processes involved in task performance— motivation, perception, certain aspect of cognition. Finally, with respect to personal health, very high levels of subjective well-being may lead people to believe that they can “get away” with doing things that are dangerous or harmful to their health. They can eat or drink too much, engage in risky actions, and so on, and “get away with it.” This kind of illusion can, of course, be very harmful and undermine the benefits to personal health conferred by subjective well-being. For these and other reasons, very high levels of subjective wellbeing can have harmful as well as beneficial effects.

So, in sum, growing evidence suggests that there can indeed be too much of a good thing where subjective well-being is concerned. While being a happy person is generally beneficial and helps people lead productive, satisfying lives, even this tendency can be overdone. And when it is, the results may be that being happy has a real, and important, “downside.”

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