The Paradox of Happiness

Posted on October 1, 2018

Paradoxically, the road to happiness may involve not thinking about happiness at all. With the current societal emphasis paid to happiness has made it almost seem like the norm; only through happiness can you live a meaningful life. As with all norms and societal standards, there is then a pressure that forms almost imperceptibly on people to achieve happiness. In other words, there starts to exist a pressure that accompanies the pursuit of happiness which in turn, puts your mental health at stress.

How does this tie in with others’ negative moods affecting our happiness?

When others around us are in a negative mood, we are afraid that our positive moods will be similarly affected. This results in us feeling worried and resentful which in turn leads us to turn inwards to examine what their unhappiness means for us. When this happens, we’re not empathizing – we ignore their experiences and focus instead on our own inner experience, and this could serve to aggravate their current unpleasant feelings as a result of feeling ignored.

It is common, normal even, that we would experience some low points in our day-to-day lives or just in general. But buying into the social pressure that happiness is a necessity may mean that people may ruminate unnecessarily when they feel they are not living up to the standards set by society. Avoiding this rumination is thus important in preventing yourself from being brought down by your own inner low moods, or that of others in your social circle.

To examine this idea, McGuirk et al designed a study to investigate the relationship between happiness, ruminating over negative moods and well-being. They manipulated happiness expectations among study participants – one group completed a negative mood-inducing (because the task was unsolvable) task in a happy room, another group completed the same task in a neutrally decorated room, and the last group was also placed in a neutrally decorated room but without the stressful task (they were told the task was difficult).

The stress manipulation task was followed by a rumination task. The researchers found a positive correlation between negative thoughts and rumination. More significantly, as the hypothesis predicted, those in the happy room were more likely to engage in rumination induced by the task than participants in the neutral rooms with and without the stress manipulation. This meant that failing in a happy context created an inner conflict which participants could not successfully resolve.

A second study supported this hypothesis as well – participants completed an online questionnaire where they rated the frequency and intensity with which they experienced 4 negative emotions, i.e. depression, sadness, anxiety and stress, social expectancies regarding these negative emotions (e.g. whether society accepts/approves of these negative emotions), the tendency to ruminate, and a standard measure of depressive symptoms.

The results found a similar relationship between perceived societal standards and rumination – those who felt it was important to seem happy and repress negative moods were tended to engage in rumination when they experienced negative moods. The researchers surmised that societal expectations are internalized such that when people do not meet these standards, they perceive that something is wrong and hence, increasing rumination and aggravating negative moods.

Thus, these studies show that it is important to normalize unhappy experiences that you, or others around you, experience. Happiness is great, but it is also not a permanent state and we should not expect it to be. Rather, being able to adapt and cope with problems constructively should become the focus instead. Accepting that unhappiness is part and parcel of life will go a long way to building a healthier approach towards life.


Category(s):Happiness, Self help groups, Self-Care / Self Compassion, Self-Love

Source material from Psychology Today


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