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Is the promotion of happiness making us sad?

Western culture places an extraordinary emphasis on happiness – and continuous happiness – as the goal each of us should strive for in our lives. But we’re increasingly realising this goal may actually…

Sadness is a natural human emotion. D Sharon Pruitt/Flickr.

Western culture places an extraordinary emphasis on happiness – and continuous happiness – as the goal each of us should strive for in our lives. But we’re increasingly realising this goal may actually be making us unhappy.

Television advertising shows people becoming happier with every new acquisition, alongside national campaigns promoting a take-no-prisoner’s approach to encouraging happiness. Barbara Ehrenreich captures this fixation well in her recent book simply titled “Smile or Die”.

Of course, feeling happy is a good thing. But happiness is only one aspect of the full range of human emotions. People also regularly feel gloomy, anxious and stressed. Despite the commonality of these negative emotional states, they are generally regarded in a quite a different light to happiness.

Normal levels of sadness, depression and anxiety are commonly pathologised and medicalised: viewed as deviating from the desired norm. Even common malaise is often diagnosed as an illness. Such negative emotions are treated with a wide array drugs and interventions designed to quickly and efficiently return us to “normality”.

Meanwhile, the many benefits of negative emotions – such as their creative potential, importance for interpersonal relations and role in achieving a rich and meaningful life – are rarely appreciated or talked about.

Negative emotions are inevitable - and stigmatising them can be harmful. Joe Penna/Flickr.

So what impact does a cultural obsession with happiness, and a relative devaluation of sadness, have on people when they inevitably do feel sad?

Social norms which place a singular focus on happiness as desirable and sadness as undesirable may increase perceived social pressures not to feel sad, with detrimental consequences for emotional functioning. This possibility was supported by research my colleagues and I recently published in Emotion, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

We found that perceived “social expectancies” not to feel sad were associated with increased negative emotions, depression and reduced well-being. When people think society generally doesn’t accept sadness or that other people expect them not to experience or express their sadness, they have more negative emotions on a weekly basis. They’re also more likely to report symptoms of depression and lower satisfaction with their lives.

In this research we also explored whether the effects of social expectancies may be more apparent in Western culture, where a higher premium is placed on happiness, compared with Eastern cultures, where emotional balance is considered more important.

What we found was that although the effects of social expectancies were evident in both cultures, they were more pronounced in Australia than in Japan. Not only did Australians perceive greater social pressure not to feel sad, they also evaluated themselves more negatively when they did feel sad, and in turn experienced a greater intensity of negative emotion on a daily basis.

We also found that social messages that reinforce these social expectancies serve to increase negative emotional responses when people recall past negative emotional events.

Don’t force yourself

Social pressures to feel happy make people feel like they’ve failed when they do feel sad, which in turn this makes them feel worse. Such negative reactions to our own negative emotions have been termed “secondary disturbances” within clinical psychology.

Trying to force happiness when we feel sad can make us feel worse. shawncampbell/Flickr.

A “new-wave” within psychotherapy has begun to focus on the concept of “acceptance”. Accepting unpleasant emotional states is demonstrated as an important pathway towards reducing secondary disturbances and improving emotional and psychological functioning. Sadly, increased acceptance of a variety of emotional states is not readily supported by salient social norms.

On top of that, when people are collectively focused on feeling happy it creates social pressures that produce more sadness. A collective focus on the goal of feeling happy may lead to a kind of “pressure-cooker” effect where the mass pursuit of happiness serves the mass production of sadness. People subsequently feel that they have failed to meet both their goals and the standards set by society.

So what should we do? Wear hessian cloths and devote our lives to the pursuit of misery and gloom? Clearly, this is not good advice!

What we can do, however, is to aim a little more for that “golden mean” noted by Aristotle in all his wisdom. The good life is found between the extremes of deficiency and excess, and is therefore best served by a mixture of both pleasure and pain.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoffrey Edwards

    logged in via email

    The reference to Aristotle brings up that greek sentiment usually expressed: "Call no man happy till he is dead."

    It suggests to me that happiness as a goal may not be the problem. Rather it is our failure to articulate, or even understand, what happiness might actually be.

    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to Geoffrey Edwards

      Geoffrey, you have hit the nail on the head with this post. I did a little exercise with myself after reading your post, I decided to actually write down my own definition of happiness, in effect, what I thought happiness was.

      It was not an easy task, because I find it very difficult to put words to feelings, but mostly what I came up with was that happiness is simply a lack of anxiety, sadness or stress, (not good stress that can be a motivator, but stress that is caused from worrying about what…

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    2. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I think we share a very similar sense of what happiness might look like, Judith.

      Rather than assuming it is the hedonic joy which advertisers delight in pitching to us as "happiness", taking stock of what it is we value and why, and considering how we might have more of it, seems a perefectly legitimate means of pursuing "happiness"

  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Feeling our lives are unfulfilled because we're too happy is such a pathetic, self-indulgent, narcissistic, arrogant first-world problem.

    1. Isabel Jackson

      PhD Researcher at The University of Melbourne

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, I'd suggest that the author was not suggesting that we should not feel "unfulfilled because we are too happy". On the contrary, that if there is a "first world problem", it is that 'happy' is the only valid state. Further, that the contemporary 'first world' (if you like) invalidates happiness both by stretching the boundaries of definitions and devalues its intrinsic qualities. A ubiquitous state of happiness thus, ironically, devalues the very range of emotional states that can lead to…

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Ian Dawson

      Hi Ian, yes I did.

      The article qiuotes research that suggests

      "When people think society generally doesn’t accept sadness ..., they have more negative emotions"

      Ironic, for sure.

      But I reckon billions of people living poverty or fear would happily choose to swap with you and me, and deal with this conundrum. 'Too much happiness makes you sad' is only something pretty lucky people have to worry about.

    3. Brock Bastian

      Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Psychology at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Hi are correct - but you point doesn't mean we don't need a psychology of first world pain any less than we need a psychology of third world pain.

      It does raise an interesting idea, however. In the essay "The myth of Sisyphus" Camus writes about a character in greek mythology who is punished by being compelled to roll an immense bolder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, and repeat his action forever. Camus proposed that we should think of Sisyphus as happy in that the…

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to James Jenkin

      With poverty I have heard of the concept of relative deprivation.

      Basically, the idea is, if everyone in your perceived community appears or actually has a particular state of living, and your state of living matches that, you don't feel deprived. Unless it's really extreme. Like everyone is dying and there is a big war. Just lacking plasma TVs doesn't cut it.

      In 'western' culture, which unfortunately Australia has been tied to despite it's actual location, our perceived community extends to 'western' culture more generally. America, UK, Europe, basically. Australia went more with the yanks after the war so.....there's a big US influence here, meaning big cars big houses big business and a lot of pressure to do things big. Just like in the US, we can't all have it, so there are haves and have nots - those that have plasma TVs and those that don't. Relative deprivation is therefore, much greater than a country where everyone is poor.

  3. James Flennington

    logged in via Facebook

    I once got caught up in "The Search For Happiness". I was constantly asking whether I was happy. The more I did that, the sadder I got. Being hyper conscious of your own happiness makes people sad. Research has shown this. Instead, I think we should focus on other people's happiness.

    I now am very happy because I focus more on service and making other people happy.


    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to James Flennington

      You can't make anyone else happy James, only they can make themselves happy. You can, by the things you do, give them more incentive to make themselves happy by leading be example.

    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Be that as it may, you're more likely to make someone happy if you're nice to them, rather than if you're mean.

      i.e. what we do has an effect on others anyway

  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Good story.
    Americans of course have an obligation to pursue happiness.
    For the rest of us, better just to be content. Accept your lot and what life throws at you. Have few goals and don't worry.
    And remember: most Australian are better off than 90% (95%?) of the planet's population.

  5. Judith Olney


    Interesting article Brock, thank you.

    I am reminded of something my Mum used to say, (I quote her often as she was a wise woman), she said "that each of us must take responsibility for our own emotions, and our own reactions, we can control nothing but ourselves in this".

    What she meant be this statement was that people seem to always look outside of themselves for someone, or something to blame, for their happiness or sadness, when in reality it is we, as individuals that decide how we react…

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  6. Julie Roccisano

    logged in via email

    Thanks for an interesting article Brock.

    I see the effect of this in my work. A lot of people have been told after an upsetting event/s to "get over it". The message they get is that the only acceptable emotion is happiness.

    This leads to a really uncomfortable downward spiral .... uncomfortable emotions in reaction to the original event/s --- thoughts that they shouldn't feel like this --- increased uncomfortable emotions....

    One of the most powerful things I can do for them at this point is to normalise their original emotional reaction to the upsetting event. Once they can accept and feel the original emotions they can then process them and move on.

  7. Carlos Figueroa

    Life Coach

    Thinking this way makes me happy... and feeling happy is the ultimate intention of anything I do. The definition of happiness is pretty simple for me: When I feel good, I'm happy. When I don't, I'm not. Happiness is not just one of many feelings. Happiness is when you experience any feeling that feels good. Joy, peace, enthusiasm and many other feelings that feel good are feelings of happiness. Sadness, anger, confusion and other feelings that don't feel good are feelings of unhappiness.

    The article says that groups of people that are promoting happiness are more sad because they can't accept unhappy moments in their life. This is true because the moment they don't accept something, they are triggering unhappiness. Acceptance creates a happy feeling and unacceptance creates an unhappy feeling. So people who want to take happiness pretty serious, should practice acceptance, including allowing moments of sadness, anger and other unpleasant feelings as part of their human experience.

  8. Eric Glare

    HIV public speaker and volunteer

    For me the article fails to point the finger directly at the real issue - the stigma of mental ill health. It is so strong that any exhibition of normal sadness, however guarded, is seen and stigmatised as mental illness. It is not that we are afraid of being sad. We are afraid of being told we are nuts and therefore, forever to be on the scrap heap on the margins of a privileged society or so the stigma says. Denial is a safer place to be. And we see this in the stats -like only a third of men seeking…

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  9. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "national campaigns promoting a take-no-prisoner’s approach to encouraging happiness. Barbara Ehrenreich captures this fixation well in her recent book simply titled “Smile or Die”."

    Reminds me of the Nazi interrogation except that instead of them saying "we have ways of making you talk", they say "we have ways of making you happy".

  10. David Collett

    spare time blogger at

    good article and it's interesting the value of acceptance is being investigated. Theravada buddhism has been teaching the value of acceptance to help with achieving peaceful states of meditation for quite a long time.

  11. Peter Hewson



    "The progressive realisation of worthwhile goals whilst remaining well adjusted".

    Broken down, and with a few definitions of the elements, it's not too bad.