Fake Smile

If you’re skeptical about the power of positive thinking, there’s a new study out that will give you something to, well, be positive about. It turns out that trying to create a “culture of happiness” where people are expected to look on the bright side of things not only doesn’t work – it actually has the opposite effect.

The researchers took a basic question as the starting point for their study: “could the overpromotion of happiness have a downside?” The researchers did acknowledge that “promoting happiness within society is good for health.” Still, past a certain point, it seems like telling people who are down on their luck to be happy could actually just make them feel worse.

So in a pair of experiments, the researchers decided to test how promoting happiness as a value influenced the way people responded to failure.

In the first experiment, the researchers looked at how emphasizing the importance of being happy changed the way people reacted to failures. The second experiment looked at the same question but from the other side – specifically, it asked how emphasizing the importance of not being unhappy (that is, the importance of avoiding states like anxiety and depression) would make people react to failure differently.

It turned out that in both cases, emphasizing happiness (or not-unhappiness) made people dwell on their failures longer. Urging people to look on the bright side of things didn’t make them any cheerier – it just made them ruminate on their shortcomings in more detail.

If you’ve ever had someone tell you to lighten up at exactly the wrong moment, these findings might make intuitive sense to you. After all, if you’re already feeling down about something, having someone tell you to be happy could just compound your problem by making you feel down about the fact that you’re feeling down.

Of course, none of this means that promoting happiness isn’t worthwhile – given the choice, we’d all rather be happy than unhappy! But it does mean that just telling people to be happy isn’t necessarily the way to go. Sometimes people are unhappy for a good reason, and that needs to be acknowledged.

Image: Flickr/steve freeman