She compares happiness to food: Although necessary and beneficial, too much food can cause problems; likewise, happiness can lead to bad outcomes. “Research indicates that very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviors, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and may lead us to neglect threats,” she says.
How else can excessive joy, or having lots of positive emotions and a relative absence of negative ones, hurt you?
First, it may hamper your career prospects. Psychologist Edward Diener, renowned for his happiness research, and his colleagues analyzed a variety of studies, including data from more than 16,000 people around the world, and discovered that those who early in their lives reported the highest life satisfaction (for example, judging it at 5 on a 5-point scale) years later reported lower income than those who felt slightly less merry when young. What’s more, they dropped out of school earlier.
Included in the studies was one involving a group of American college freshmen who in 1976 claimed to be very cheerful. Surveyed again when they were in their late 30s, they earned, on average, almost $3,500 a year less than their slightly less cheerful peers. Why? Diener suggests that people who don’t experience much sadness or anxiety are rarely dissatisfied with their jobs and therefore feel less pressure to get more education or change careers.
Psychologists point out that emotions are adaptive: They make us change behavior to help us survive. Anger prepares us to fight; fear helps us flee. But what about sadness? Studies show that when we are sad, we think in a more systematic manner. Sad people are attentive to details and externally oriented, while happy people tend to make snap judgments that may reflect racial or sex stereotyping.
Fooling the jury
In a 1994 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Northwestern University psychologist Galen Bodenhausen and his colleagues asked 94 undergraduates to participate in a simulated “students’ court.” They were told they would be making a judgment after reading about a case that occurred on a different campus. Before the “court” opened, half of the participants were induced into a positive mood (they had been instructed to think and write about an event that had made them feel particularly good), while the other half was asked to recall the mundane events of the previous day (to leave them in a neutral mood). The results were clear: Those in a happy mood were more likely to find a fellow student named “Juan Garcia” guilty of beating up a roommate than one identified as “John Garner.” The control group was pretty much equally divided between “Juan” and “John.”