The Pressure to Feel Happy All the Time Is Making a Lot of People Unhappy

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We’re living in a golden age of happiness research. Scientists, economists, philosophers and even heads of state have trained their attention on a subject that not so long ago would have been considered “soft,” as studies increasingly show that happiness is much more than a warm fuzzy feeling – being happy is a skill with tangible and wide-ranging benefits.

Thanks to what The Economist has christened “the happiness industry,” we know more than ever about what causes happiness, how happiness affects our lives and work and even how we can increase our happiness through practice. For example, a study by economists at the UK’s University of Warwick found that happiness made people about 12 percent more productive at work. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says he views happiness “not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis. If you want to be a good tennis player, you can’t just pick up a racket – you have to practice.” And indeed, there are concrete steps we can take to increase our happiness; for example, one study found that when we help others at work, we feel happier ourselves.

Additionally, happiness is increasingly being used as an indicator of a nation’s overall well-being – a notion pioneered in Bhutan as an alternative to GDP and other traditional measures of success. In this year’s World Happiness Report, which evaluated 155 countries according to their happiness levels, Norway ranked as the world’s happiest country, while India ranked 122 – dropping four spots from last year’s report. Possible reasons for India’s evident unhappiness include crises of malnutrition and access to education, according to Mashable. And then there’s the problem of overwork and burnout: India is the fourth most vacation-deprived country in the world.

At every level, our newfound understanding of happiness is yielding positive benefits. But there’s also a worrying side effect: all this emphasis on happiness is creating pressure on people to feel and appear happy, even when they’re not.

Svend Brinkmann, a Danish psychology professor and author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is among those pointing out that the situations we encounter demand a range of emotional responses, and that happiness isn’t always an appropriate option. “I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it because that’s how we understand the world,” he told Quartz.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Brock Bastian, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, who adds that our use of social media encourages us to broadcast feelings of happiness because we associate it with success. In studies, he and his colleagues found that “when people experienced negative emotions and felt social pressure not to, they felt socially disconnected and experienced more loneliness.”

So as new studies and research continue to deepen our understanding of happiness, it’s important that authenticity be part of the equation. Yes, happiness has incredible benefits – but only if we feel it genuinely. What’s truly important is allowing ourselves to feel and express the full range of our emotions, matching our responses to the situation. Because forced happiness is no happiness at all.

This article is authored by Gregory Beyer.

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