Trapped in a culture of happiness

Why policymakers need to encourage us to learn to live with negative emotions

Brock Bastian

Development, Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

7 August 2018

Making happiness the goal of policy could be self-defeating. Brock Bastian argues we should focus on advancing other forms of human flourishing.

Economists, psychologists and policymakers have begun to move beyond objective measures of wellbeing such as GDP, to more subjective measures such as happiness and satisfaction in life. This shift hinges on the hugely important recognition that objective and subjective measures of wellbeing are not always in lockstep and that increases in material wealth do not neatly map onto happiness.

It is for this reason that former UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched the UK happiness index and countries around the globe are now being compared on their levels of subjective wellbeing. While this rising interest in subjective wellbeing is clearly valuable, it is also important to understand its potential to backfire.

Policymakers working in this space should recognise a counter-intuitive truth: happiness should not be the goal.

Measuring economic progress provides a benchmark against which we can compare current economic standards and seek to promote increased productivity. The recognition that we are not where we would ideally like to be motivates efforts to reduce the divide.

More on this: Achieving genuine progress in Australia

The process of goal pursuit plays out very differently, however, in the case of subjective states. Research suggests that making happiness a goal backfires. When happiness is the ideal against which we measure our current subjective state of wellbeing, it can lead to feelings of disappointment or a sense of failure, and this tends to push us further away from the goal of happiness rather than propel us towards it.

There is also another reason that focusing on happiness may be detrimental to national wellbeing. Our research shows that living in contexts that value happiness can promote greater satisfaction in life. However, it also suggests that when the high value placed on happiness leads to a concomitant tendency to devalue negative emotional states, such as feelings of sadness, depression, stress, or anxiety, this can quickly undermine wellbeing.

Everyone inevitably experiences these negative emotional states, but when they are problematised or medicalised and viewed as counter-productive to the goal of feeling happy, people respond to them less adaptively.

A key aspect of this process is not how people personally value their emotions, but their perception of how others in society view them. When people develop the impression that they are expected to feel happy and not to experience or express negative emotion, they tend to feel more lonely and socially isolated when they do have these feelings.

This social pressure to avoid feelings of depression or anxiety is a central feature of depression. It is not that people who tend to experience depression feel they don’t fit in. Rather, it is the social pressure to experience positive rather than negative emotional states which tends to lead to a range of depressive symptoms.

In one study we examined how people responded to an experience of failure. Some participants had the experience in a normal (bland) testing room. Other participants had the experience in a testing room that was decorated with positivity slogans, self-help books on happiness, and reminders of the importance of being happy. These participants showed a more maladaptive response to failure – they ruminated about it more – compared to the participants who were not reminded of the value of happiness.

It’s time to take a different approach to happiness.

More on this: Podcast: Health and wellbeing

It is perhaps no surprise that most people want to feel happy. Yet, this somewhat obvious statement does question why we focus on the value of happiness. I don’t think we need to convince people that pursuing happiness is a good thing, or that feeling happy is a desirable state. Rather, what we should be doing is helping them to see the various psychological traps that may derail their attempts to be happy.

A key trap is how people respond to their negative emotional experiences.

When we look at rates of mental illness across countries, we can see that countries like Australia and America have a much higher prevalence compared to those countries within the Asian regions. It is not because people in Asian countries have fewer negative emotions. Rather, our research suggests that it is because they have learned to respond to their negative emotions more adaptively.

If we are to promote happiness in Australia, then it may be prudent to stop making happiness the goal and to stop trying to directly measure it. Rather, we should be finding ways to educate people around how they can better cope with their negative emotions.

One approach to this, as I have detailed extensively in my book The Other Side of Happiness, is to begin to find value in our painful, unpleasant, and negative experiences in life. Simply viewing these experiences as detracting from the value of life, or the goal of becoming happy, is a sure-fire way to maximise their impact on our lives.

Happiness is better viewed as the outcome of other more meaningful life pursuits. Measuring prosocial behaviour, giving, volunteering, or community engagement is perhaps a better way to know whether a population is indeed flourishing, and a better way to promote that flourishing in people’s own lives.

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