Thursday, 30 August 2012

How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder

Founded in 2010, the Action for Happiness movement states: "What we want for our society is as much happiness as is possible and, above all, as little misery". These aims are well-intentioned, but a new study shows public campaigns like this could have an ironic effect, actually making sad people feel sadder (update: please see the comments below where the Director of Action for Happiness, Mark Williamson, gives his response to this study).

Brock Bastian and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of Australian and Japanese students and found that those people who believed more strongly that society expects us to try to be happy, also tended to evaluate their own negative emotions more negatively. In other words, believing that there's a cultural expectation to strive for happiness is associated with feeling sad about being sad. In turn, people who felt this societal expectation more keenly, also reported experiencing negative emotions more often and having poorer wellbeing (a fall-out that was mediated by these participants being more critical of their own negative emotions). Comparing across cultures, the overall pattern of results was present but weaker in Japan, where negative emotions are generally better tolerated.

These initial findings provided only a snapshot. To get a better sense of the causality of societal expectations, Bastian and his team conducted two further studies in which Australian participants were first primed with carefully prepared newspaper articles, and then prompted to feel negative emotion by reminiscing in writing about a negative event from their lives.

Reading a news article about research that claimed sadness is infectious or that sad people are disliked led participants to experience more negative emotion after they'd reminisced about a bad event in their past. It's as if a reminder of society's intolerance to negative emotion aggravated participants' own negative feelings. By contrast, reading an article that said sad people are accepted and liked, led participants to experience less negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise.

Results from the control condition in this study were particularly revealing. In this case participants were primed with a mundane article about fertiliser. They experienced just as much negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise as participants who'd read the article about sad people being disliked. This suggests the reminder about society's intolerance of negative emotions was unnecessary for aggravating the experience of sadness. "Social pressures appear to be highly normative and particularly so within Western cultures," the researchers said.

Bastian and his colleagues said their findings show how our beliefs about society's intolerance of negative emotions has downstream effects, changing how we experience our own emotions, "ironically aggravating those same emotions that are deemed to be socially undesirable or unacceptable."

"Attempts to promote the value of feeling good over the value of feeling bad by emphasising social norms for these emotions may therefore have the effect of making people feel bad more often," the researchers concluded.


Bastian B, Kuppens P, Hornsey MJ, Park J, Koval P, and Uchida Y (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12 (1), 69-80 PMID: 21787076

-Further reading- Other people may experience more misery than you realise.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Tim Mahy said...

Surely that is just going about the way of delivering happiness the wrong way?

By making happiness an essential it is making the negative a negative event and thus exacerbating the effect of negative affect.

Positive psychology literature talks about negative emotions being necessary to cope with some events, and how positive emotions can help to buffer the negative events, therefore an awareness that happiness is not the be all and end all of life would raise awareness that sometimes having negative feelings is a positive thing!

Unfortunately the interpretation of the cult of happiness is incorrect with many espousing that you need to be happy all the time to cope with life, to be successful in your career and in social interactions, whereas this is not strictly correct. If there was a greater understanding of the balance of happiness and negative affect then maybe people would realise that happiness itself is not a flawed concept, it's just some peoples' conceptualisations of the meaning of happiness.

Well, that's my opinion anyway.

Brian Robinson said...

The title and initial paragraph of this article do not appear to be supported by the research. Far from showing that campaigns in favour of happiness and against misery "could have an ironic effect, actually making sad people feel sadder" the study as you report it shows that the effect is just as strong even when people are not reminded. As you put it: "the reminder about society's intolerance of negative emotions was unnecessary for aggravating the experience of sadness" - contradicting the claim you make at the start.

This is unfortunate, and should be corrected. In my view the opportunity for a positive message is given when you say: "reading an article that said sad people are accepted and liked, led participants to experience less negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise" - because campaigns could promote the notion that people who feel emotions such as sadness or misery can be accepted and liked, including by themselves.

Unknown said...

I disagree. Whilst the second study did suggest that there already exists a normative belief that society disapproves of sadness, this certainly does not rule out the possibility that happiness campaigns could exacerbate that societal belief. This paper is all about demonstrating the principle that making people less tolerant of their own negative emotions could end up making them feel worse.

Brian Robinson said...

To be clear, I am not saying (above) that "happiness campaigns" are necessarily the best approach. If I were to read the sort of material I've just seen on the Action for Happiness website when feeling low I might well feel worse. But the research, as you report it, does not support the link you are making.

Aiming to increase happiness is not inconsistent with liking ourselves when we do not feel happy; but certainly there is a problematic aspect to it, based perhaps on self-criticism arising from something like "I should feel happy". I have just completed research (unpublished as yet) which may be of relevance to this. Going back to the research you cite, we could speculate that liking and accepting ourselves when we are unhappy may be key to being more happy.

Scott McGreal said...

This reminded me of an interesting book, "The Happiness Trap" that argues that deliberately trying to be happy can paradoxically have the opposite effect. On the other hand, accepting the full range of one's feelings can improve personal well-being. Maybe there needs to be an "Action for tolerance of all emotions" movement!

Brian Robinson said...

Indeed, the study does not rule out the possibility. Somewhat different from saying that it "shows" (your word) these campaigns could make people feel worse. ;-)

But also, see my second comment: I have sympathy for your opinion, because I think I would feel like that. The idea that happiness campaigns could exacerbate the societal belief would need research to support it, if none already exists. There does not seem to be support for it in this study.

In my opinion the paper is all about showing that making people more tolerant of their own negative emotions could end up making them feel better. And that's something I'd like to campaign for.

Unknown said...

Well, it's true this study is not a direct test of the effect of happiness campaigns. It's more about the principle that people's beliefs about the tolerance of negative emotion can effect their own experience of negative emotion, potentially worsening it. I think the message the researchers wanted to convey was that we should be careful when spreading messages about happiness -- that to imply misery is unwanted could make unhappy people feel worse. I tried to reflect that simple point in the Digest and I think this study does show that happiness campaigns *could* make sad people feel sadder (I was careful not to say that they *are* making people sadder).

Unknown said...

thanks for that. Another that's relevant is Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

Unknown said...

hi Tim - I think you're spot on.

Unknown said...

I completely agree with you that there's a positive message to come out of this. I think definitely more research is needed, obviously, but if the basic principle is confirmed then it could help tailor the way campaigns like Action for Happiness are conducted.

Mark Williamson said...

Hello, thanks for this interesting post. I'm Director of the Action for Happiness movement you refer to, so I hope you don't mind if I add a bit of clarification from our side. This piece raises a really important point - that sadness and other negative emotions are an inevitable part of life and if we encourage people to ignore these or tell them that they should be "happy all the time" this is in fact a path to worse psychological health. We completely agree with this.

At Action for Happiness we think about happiness in a much broader and more meaningful way than just short-lived feelings of pleasure and enjoyment. Matthieu Ricard put it well when he said that "Happiness is a deep sense of flourishing, not a mere pleasurable feeling or fleeting emotion but an optimal state of being". (Obviously there's a terminology point here, but this way of thinking about happiness is consistent with what parents say when you ask them what they want most for their children. Almost all answer "to be happy" - they don't mean smiling all the time, they mean living a life that is happy overall - i.e. healthy, resilient, good relationships, rewarding work, enjoyable hobbies/interests, financial security etc).

Also, the main thrust of Action for Happiness is to encourage people to care more about the happiness of OTHERS. It's not a self-help movement of people just trying to make themselves happier, it's a movement of people who want to create a happier society for everyone. So this includes people campaigning for greater investment in mental health, teachers helping kids develop emotional resilience, business leaders encouraging their employees to learn mindfulness techniques, community members setting up local wellbeing groups and much more.

Many members of our movement are people who have themselves struggled with depression and anxiety and we encourage people to talk openly about their experiences. We also do a lot to encourage the uptake of mindfulness practices which, as I'm sure you'll know, are about accepting thoughts and emotions as they arise (whether negative or positive) rather than trying to ignore negative feelings and encourage only positive ones. One of our recent events even had a talk from Oliver Burkeman about his book "The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking".

So yes, if our movement was "Action for telling people they have to be happy" then everything you've written above would be spot on. But actually we're more like "Action for helping people lead genuinely happier lives, including accepting and dealing constructively with adversity and anxiety" - but that name didn't seem quite so catchy!

Best wishes to all, Mark Williamson (Director, Action for Happiness)

Unknown said...

Hi Mark, thank you for taking the time to share your perspective - it's much appreciated. I'll add a note to the post to alert people to your comments.

Linda said...

It's sad then happy naturally come to back, again happy get back to sad.The two integral part of our lives.
So cheers.:)

Sally Branch said...

I'm mindful that Martin Seligman changed from promoting 'happiness'i.e positive emotions to promoting 'well-being' which is about far more than positive emotions (includes connection with others, engagement in meaningful activity etc etc)- i wish this term were better understood and used, because 'happiness' is too far from some people's current experience to feel acheivable, and as others have said, is of dubious benefit as a single goal. And unattainable. And often inaapropriate!

Psicologo a domicilio said...

I am a psychologist and agree with you completely. It's usual in depressed patients who make efforts to be happy to please their family members, and they just aggravate their depression. They put a happy face in front of people while feeling worse inside.
In most cases, accepting your negative emotions is the first step to health, but you have of course to make steps to gradually be able to get out of those negative emotions (realizing pleasurable activities, exercising, etc.).

human psychology said...

Psychology Academy employ a range of techniques based on experiential relationship building, dialogue, communication and behavior change that are designed to improve the mental health of a client or patient, or to improve group relationships such as in a family.

Unknown said...

This makes sense. But I don't think this study will help people become happier anyway.

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