In a previous blog I wrote that happiness is good for us. Happier people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. But is it true that the happier you are the better it is for you? Should we all be striving for maximum levels of happiness?
A longitudinal study by Diener et al (2002) analysed the happiness levels of students entering college in 1976 and found that the most cheerful students in 1976 were making substantially more money in 1995 than those who were less cheerful ($65,023 compared with $49,770). Interestingly, the highest earners had rated themselves as having above average levels of happiness rather than the very highest levels of happiness. People who had above average levels of happiness were earning more than people who had the highest level of happiness. So, when it comes to income the optimal level of happiness isn’t the highest possible level of happiness, but rather the above average level.
The same is true with educational attainment. Moderately happy people are more likely to stay in education and achieve higher academic qualifications than very happy people. So for income and educational levels moderate happiness is better than the highest level of happiness.
This isn’t true for length of intimate relationship though. The happier you are the more likely you are to stay in a long-term relationship. But why are there different optimal levels of happiness?
One explanation is that the happiest people may become complacent which prevents them from seeing their weaknesses and working on them. People who are very happy are more likely to be content with who they are and won’t see the need to strive to make changes. People who are less happy may be more self-critical and therefore more motivated to change. They may be more motivated to work harder or to stay in education. Self-criticism brings with it self-improvement often leading to higher performance. Self-criticism isn’t as important in our intimate relationships. The positive illusion (seeing the world through rose tinted glasses) that comes with the very highest level of happiness serves well in romantic relationships, leading to us glossing over our partner’s flaws and focusing on romantic idealisation resulting in relationship stability. The ability of the very happiest people to see the best in the world around them helps them to maintain stable relationships.
One of the downsides of chronic happiness (reporting the very highest level of happiness) is that we can become more sensitive to negative events. Research has shown that chronically happy people need 2 compliments to overcome 1 criticism; where-as moderately happy people are able to recover from 1 criticism after 1 complement.
There is also evidence that people who are in sad moods are more detail-focused and critical in their thinking, which is important in certain roles and certain situations and in problem solving.
While most of us want to strive to achieve the greatest level of happiness we need to remember that great happiness doesn’t always make us successful in life. Most of us would be better off remaining moderately happy.
Reference: Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R.E., & Sandvik, E., (2002). Dispositional affect of job outcome. Social Indicators Research. 59, 229 – 259
For more information: Oishi, S., Kurtz, J.L., (2011). The positive Psychology of Positive Emotions: An Avuncular View in Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T.B., & Steger, M.F., (Eds.). Designing the Future of Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. New York: Oxford University Press.