As humans, we are instinctively drawn to the positive. We tend to move towards positive situations, people and life-giving energy. This is referred to as the heliotropic effect. Positive energy allows us to process information more accurately which leads to an improved recall process. We learn and grow faster in positive environments, we perform at our best and we are much kinder to others and ourselves. So, this positive heliotropic effect should naturally be good for us. Likewise, pursuing happiness has scientifically demonstrated that it allows us to flourish, perform at our optimal, increase our well-being, broaden our attention span and become more goal orientated. But can too much of a good thing be bad for us? And what is too much?

Researcher June Gruber (2011) explored the concept of a dysfunctional dark side to happiness. At its minimum level, happiness includes life satisfaction experiencing more positive than negative emotions and moods, combining the emotional with the cognitive well-being. The automatic answer appears to be no. The questions Gruber asked are relevant to understanding the dark side of happiness:

Question 1: Is there a wrong quantity of happiness?

The first question is interesting as it questions whether  too much of a good thing is bad for us. Can too many positive emotions be maladaptive? We know that too much exercising can lead to physical injuries, too much working results in stress and possibly burnout, too much ruminating causes procrastination, decision-paralysis and exercise dieting results in bodily–organ–systems damage.

The same applies to happiness. An excessive level of a psychological state, negative or positive, is believed to be unhealthy and may lead to maladaptive behaviour and thoughts. The secret lies in moderation – everything in a balanced quantity. Excessive extreme happiness swings are unhealthy for us and may even come at a cost.

  • Decline in creativity;
  • Increase in riskier behaviours such as alcohol or drug consumption, binge eating and drinking, and promiscuous sexual activities;
  • Ignoring warning signs of threats and danger to our well-being;
  • The inability to feel or allow negative emotions.

Even people who have developed and grown their happiness levels experience negative emotions and feelings. They equally have bad days, disappointments and low moods. However, they manage them with a curious, open mind and don’t aim to deny or suppress those emotions; using a balanced approach.

We need to tread carefully and not make happiness the benchmark for people’s psychological and emotional well-being. Learning that the wisdom lies in balancing the positive with the negative in a harmonious way. Finding what the right dose is for each of us, the dose that makes us flourish and be our best possible self.

Next week, we’ll continue exploring the answers to questions 2 to 4 on this topic.