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Yes, happiness has a downside according to a positive psychologist

Nick Holton, Ph.D., outlines four reasons why the pursuit of pleasantness isn’t always good for your self or your business.

Yes, happiness has a downside according to a positive psychologist
[Photo: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash]
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For years now I’ve taught leaders and students about the well-being boost. A reference to the incredible and profound findings from Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s meta-analysis demonstrating the propensity of “positive” feelings to lead to improved outcomes in all walks of life, including a variety of business metrics.

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Without a doubt, it’s critical that individuals, organizations, and business leaders understand and leverage this idea in their daily actions and organizational policies. At the same time, this idea needs some added nuance. We need to remember that the “negative” is, in fact, sometimes necessary too.

Let’s not confuse the issue here. Any entrepreneur, manager, or leader who isn’t putting their people’s well-being, and their own well-being for that matter, at the top of the priority list, is behind the curve. Focusing on well-being, cultivating a sense of purpose, and facilitating engagement are not only inherently worthwhile pursuits, they are also competitive advantages. It is no coincidence that Google is consistently rated among the happiest places to work. Nor that firms labeled as highly “conscious” outperform the market by an average of 10.5-to-1 due, in large part, to the fact that they show incredible compassion for all of their stakeholders, not just their investors and C-suite execs.

That said, like most things in life and business, the notion that positivity is enough to lead us to the good life is actually much more complicated. For starters, assigning value labels to feelings like “positive” and “negative” is inherently flawed. It’s much more practical to refer to them as pleasant and unpleasant. Fear, doubt, and stress may all be unpleasant but, they very often create positive outcomes. Stanford lecturer Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress details the many ways in which stress can enhance us, from increased motivation to amplified focus to better performance. Scott Barry Kaufman, a revered psychologist, has written extensively on the growth that, more often than not, occurs after trauma. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s book The Upside of Your Darkside provides a litany of examples that demonstrate “happiness sometimes backfires, and bad states are sometimes good…accumulating emotions that feel good right now and avoiding emotions that feel unpleasant is not the best strategy for living well.”

Consider of few examples of this disadvantage:

  • Feeling relaxed can lead to a lack of motivation whereas feeling pushed by appropriate challenges can lead to the experience of flow, a peak performance state.
  • Feeling overly optimistic about our problems can cause us to fail to act whereas doubt often leads to healthy motivation and appropriate behavioral responses.
  • Divergent (creative) thinking is highly associated with gratitude but, more so when unpleasant emotions like grief or vulnerability are present alongside it.
  • Experiential avoidance which is the unwillingness to have and endure unpleasant feelings can lead to less of the risk-taking behavior required for innovation and forward-thinking that businesses need.

[Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash]
One of the best examples of the way understanding, processing, and enduring our unpleasant feelings can lead to enhanced results comes from Denise Shull, one of the preeminent performance coaches to Wall Street superstars. Her work fuses together the fields of neuroeconomics and psychoanalysis. As she explains in her book Market Mind Games, more often than not, successful coaching of her high-end clientele requires means diving into their negative experiences and associations. She helps these economic power players become more comfortable with their own discomfort in order to ward off self-sabotage and the performance slumps that accompany such feelings. Her secret sauce doesn’t come from applying pure objective logic to market analysis and trading, nor from being unrealistically optimistic. It comes from getting in touch with emotions. All of them. Even the unpleasant ones.

My friend and colleague Dr. Sharron Russell, director of Positive Education at The Shipley School, likes to refer to emotions not as positive or negative but purposeful. This is a much more productive way to conceptualize the impact our feelings have on our personal and professional outcomes. When our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors experienced the fear of the saber-tooth tiger, the resulting action was fight or flight. While that may have been an unpleasant experience, it also served a critical purpose that resulted in what we undoubtedly consider to be a positive outcome, survival.

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The now-famous, though somewhat debated “marshmallow experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel in 1972 further supports the point that sometimes the best outcomes do not come from the constant experience of pleasant feeling. Mischel asked young kids to resist eating a marshmallow placed in front of them with the promise that, if they could exert the self-control necessary to hold out, they’d be rewarded with a second marshmallow later.

The results (while were never really fully replicated) demonstrated a relationship between the kids who could wait for the second marshmallow and positive outcomes later in life. In other words, sometimes enduring discomfort and dissatisfaction in the short-term is necessary for greater success in the long run. Yes, the “happiness advantage” suggests that sometimes we need to eat the first marshmallow but, we also know both implicitly and empirically that there are times in life and in the pursuit of goals that we need to wait for the second.

So, while we all need to be pursuing greater levels of engagement and well-being for ourselves and the people around us, we ought to be very cautious about propagating the notion that the best way to achieve that aim is via the constant pursuit and experience of pleasantness. That simply and scientifically is not the case.


Nick Holton, MAED, Ph.D. is a consultant, speaker, and peak performance coach at Eudaimonics, LLC.