The Happiness Trap

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Communicating negative feelings to others can be tricky. Oftentimes, social pressure pushes our expressed moods upward, making it difficult to articulate feelings honestly–outside of easily classifiable events like the death of a loved one or a painful break-up.

The stigma around negativity comes from a cultural obsession with optimism, psychologist Aaron Sackett of St. Thomas University told Psychology Today. For its first hundred-odd years, psychology focused almost exclusively on dysfunction–that is, what was clinically wrong with us. In the 1990s, the positive psychology movement reacted against this trend by emphasizing how otherwise healthy people could psychologically grow and thrive. As Psychology reporter Annie Murphy Paul argues, this idea was a perfect fit for the booming nineties, but cultural and social changes since then have made the message resonate less. And now, new research suggests that optimism and positivity may be less useful than once thought.

Rather than incessant positivity, Paul maintains, a more useful attitude is a balance between positive and negative mindsets, with an emphasis on flexibility. And while optimism can often be a good motivator, pessimism can be equally powerful and valuable. “Pessimism is an ego-protection strategy,” Sackett told Psychology. It can also motivate us to work harder to avoid potential setbacks, and allows us to carefully navigate uncertain conditions.

Blind positivity, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. As Paul notes, a recent study published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Developmentfound that optimism at the wrong time can lead to depression. This is especially true in situations where people were not prepared for inevitable outcomes, such as the death of an elderly friend.   

At the same time, most of us seem to be hardwired for exactly that kind of blind optimism. As Andrea Anderson reports in Scientific American Mind, researchers at University College London have found a persistent “optimism bias” among a large majority of people. Fully 79 percent of participants were found to underestimate their chances of having negative experiences and overestimate their chances of positive ones–despite receiving evidence to the contrary. According to Anderson, being aware of the optimism bias may be essential to avoid its potential pitfalls, as unreasoning optimism can be dangerous. The findings were so consistent, in fact, that researchers speculated that they could “signal anxiety or depression” among the fifth of participants who responded differently.

And, as psychiatrist Neel Burton argues, also in Psychology Today, depression may be a more useful state than previously thought. While depression can be painful and debilitating, it can also provide a window to process and rethink complex or changing circumstances. And because depression has clear genetic causes, and because it has not receded in the larger population over time, Burton hypothesizes that it may produce some adaptive advantage. Just as sickle-cell anemia also produces the clear evolutionary advantage of immunity to malaria, depression may confer empathy and thoughtfulness in its sufferers–traits with obvious social and personal benefits. Without the cloud of incessant optimism, people with a tendency toward depression might see the world as more realistic, even more meaningful.

But, as Burton maintains, that is not to say that depression is on the whole good or necessary–just that it may hold some positive aspects that have mostly gone unnoticed. As The Atlantic reminds us, like many mental illnesses, depression remains mostly untreated among Americans. But real treatment means more than blind optimism and positive thinking. It means wrestling with personal barriers and social expectations that generally don’t match one another, especially in a culture of relentless optimism.

As Aaron Sackett told Psychology Today, “In America, optimism is like a cult.” There is indeed a power in positive thinking, but blind embrace of ideas like happiness and optimism may cloud a larger picture.  

Sources: Psychology Today, Scientific American Mind, The Atlantic.

Image by Filosofias filosoficas, licensed under Creative Commons.

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