Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Can You Be Too Happy?

As with most great lines in the English language, “too much of a good thing” comes from Shakespeare.

In As You Like It Rosalind asked this question: “Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

Anyone who believes that you cannot be too rich or too thin clearly desires too much of a good thing. But, does the same apply to happiness? Is it possible to desire too much happiness, to strive so fervently after happiness that one suffers for it. 

Yesterday in the Washington Post, Martha Zaraska asked what it means to be too happy. She reported that psychologists believe that too much happiness can make you unhappy. 

In recent years, psychologists led by Martin Seligman have directed their efforts toward the question of happiness. Since therapists had been wallowing in the relentlessly negative and pessimistic Freudian view of human nature they wanted to balance it with a new emphasis on happiness.

Surely, they were also thinking about how to treat depression, and, in particular, what it means to overcome depression?

When someone is no longer depressed is he blissfully happy all the time?

Most of us understand that too much happiness is not a sign that a person is no longer depressed. It feels like a sign that the person is trying to mask depression with something that appears to be like a mania.

When Aaron Beck devised a cognitive treatment model for depression he did not attempt to flood depressed minds with positive and optimistic thoughts.

He wanted to help his patients find balance, to be able to consider the good with the bad, the positive with the negative, the optimistic with the pessimistic.

Normally, we believe that depression is too much of a bad thing.

If you think about it, and if you have had the opportunity to work with people who are depressed, you will see that depression can also be too much of a good thing. That good thing would be: humility.

Since we live in a world awash in narcissism and arrogance, it makes logical sense that some people would counterbalance the ambient vainglory by expressing too much of an excluded alternative virtue: humility.

In a politics that seems to reward people whose arrogance is beyond measure it makes sense that more and more people would stand up for virtue by suffering depression.

Beck understood that depressions are fed by relentlessly self-deprecating judgments. Depressed individuals develop bad mental habits, like thinking less of themselves. They then add on some bad verbal habits, like talking themselves down, compulsively excusing themselves, and isolating themselves from human intercourse.

In moderation, these habits denote humility. In excess, they produce depression.

Zaraska asks whether someone can feel too much happiness? She reports on research that suggests that, if happiness involves a perpetually cheerful and sunny disposition, a will to see like through rose-colored glasses, then surely, it is a bad thing.

In everyday terms, too much happiness will blind you to reality. In psychological terms, it is maladaptive.

This discussion assumes that we all know what happiness is. Or better, that when we speak of happiness we are all talking about the same thing.

In today’s America many people tend to associate happiness with vacation, with leisure pursuits, with bliss, ecstasy, or even true love. Or else, they believe that happiness can be purchased for the price of a Prozac prescription.

For my part I prefer to see happiness as contentment. As I see it, true happiness is something that you earn... the satisfaction of a job well done, the pride in achievement, the joy in having a harmonious family life and a group of close friends.

If you walk around town in a constant state of drugged-out bliss, you are not happy. You are oblivious.

Researchers have importantly discovered that it is best not to seek out happiness. It is better to work hard to achieve our goals and to get along with other people. When we succeed we feel happy and contented. When we fail, we feel unhappy and discontented. 

According to Dr. June Gruber of Yale University people who are too happy tend to take too many risks. They ignore potentially negative consequences of their actions. They feel so good about themselves so they imagine that they will always come out ahead. Sometimes they are so oblivious that they believe that they have come out ahead even when they haven’t.

In her words:

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. 

Anyone who makes a fetish of happiness will become so absorbed in good feelings that he will filter out any reality that would tend to compromise them.

Thereby he will lose touch with reality. I have said it before, and it is worth repeating, but emotions signal what is going on in your life. They are trying to tell you to take action to improve the situation. They are not telling you to take a pill.

Sometimes emotions are early warning signals of situations you have not fully grasped. You may not think that you have failed or that you are being demeaned, but your depressed mood will alert you to it. You may feel that everything is right with the world, but your anxiety will be telling you that you are in danger. .

Unfortunately, the medical profession seems unwilling or unable to respect negative emotions, to the point where we now have pills to blot out nearly all negative emotions and the ill feelings.

One recognizes that some people become so depressed or anxious that they can no longer function. Surely, they are helped by medication, or by aerobic conditioning and yoga.

Yet, drugs are not really your friends or your helpmates, If they make you feel like a success before you have succeeded, they might reduce your motivation and perseverance.

If they make you feel like a success even when you have not succeeded they can undermine your work ethic.

Re-engineering your emotions carries a considerable risk. If it blurs your sense of reality and undermines your will to take action, it will do you more harm than good. Even if it makes you feel happy.

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

If there is a definition of hell, I think it would be having everything you want.