Psychologist Wray Herbert has written an article for
Newsweek about happiness
. The title is
“Can You Be Too Happy?” How could you be
too happy? Too happy for what? Sounds crazy. Let’s take a look!

Is it really a good
thing to be ultrahappy? Nobody thrives on sheer misery, of course, but might
there be perils in endlessly striving for more and more good cheer and sunny
days? Or, put another way: is happiness overrated?

There are at least three questions here: Q1. Is
it good to be happy? Q2. Is it good to constantly strive for more
happiness?  Q3.  Is happiness as good as people think it is?  It seems pretty likely that
these questions have different answers. And
of course ‘good’ in Q1 can be understood as ‘intrinsically good,’ ‘instrumentally
good,’ ‘overall good,’ and lots of other ways. This all seems like a problem. OK,
let’s move along.

Shigehiro Oishi, Ed
and Richard Lucas decided to compare people who see
themselves as being extremely happy with people who describe themselves as
being only moderately so… For the sake of shorthand, let’s call the two groups
the Blissful and the Contented… Not surprisingly, the scientists found that
Blissful people were more likely than the merely Contented to have rich and
stable intimate relationships.

Happiness leads to good relationships.  Score one for happiness being instrumentally good
for you.  Go happiness!

But… the merely
Contented were more highly educated, and they went on to be more successful in
their careers than the Blissful. They also brought home much fatter paychecks.

Uh oh.  Happiness leads to you making less money. And we can all agree that money is what really matters in life, right?  Not being happy, that’s for sure.

The Blissful were
less politically engaged than the Contented.

Does this make it good or bad to be happy? I can’t tell.  Wait, what was the question again?

The most surprising
finding to come out of these ambitious studies has to do with acts of
charity… The Blissful were much more
likely than the Contented to give away their time and energy for a cause, to
act altruistically.

This doesn’t surprise me much, but it’s kind of a cool thing
to know. But what does it have to do with
happiness being good for you?  I’m getting confused and hungry.

Almost time for the conclusion, so let’s see what we’ve
learned. If you are happy, you’ll have a good marriage but you won’t make lots of money.  You won’t care so much about politics and you’ll help out the homeless.  I guess happiness seems to be OK, but I do want more money!  Returning to our questions:

Is happiness instrumentally good? Scientists say: in some ways yes, in other ways no.

Is happiness intrinsically good? Scientists say: damned if I know!  Ask Dan Haybron.

Is it good to constantly strive for more happiness?  Scientists say: ???????

Now let’s see what Herbert concludes.

What we’re calling
the Contented are just that: happier than average.
But the psychologists’ argument here is that it may be pointless for
the Contented to strive for anything more than that. Indeed, it may be
detrimental, especially if the quest for a constant state of happiness becomes
obsessive, hedonistic thrill seeking.

Ummm, OK.

Incidentally, does anyone happen to know what study Herbert
is referring to? He doesn’t say.

5 Replies to “Happiness: Good or Bad?

  1. One obvious kind of Aristotelian, anti-reductionist response is to point out that these findings are based on self-reports about how people feel, and (a) not only are self-reports unreliable, but (b) the wrong question is being asked here: The Contented look to be living more fulfilling lives in a way (more engaged, more educated, etc.), even if they feel less happy. So perhaps the article too blithely assumes that happiness is a mental state rather than a property of one’s life and its constituent activities taken as a whole.

  2. Let me second most of what Michael says in his comment. However, one would have a difficult time convincing the subjective well-being researchers that self-reports are unreliable; there is a considerable literature to the contrary (self-reports correspond to assessments by loved ones, and correlate with other “objective” indicators of doing well). But what Michael says about the assumption that happiness is a mental state is dead-on: this is *the* basic assumption that informs much of this research. I have been working on a critique of this view, and suggesting a different picture, in a paper currently under review, which can be found at: In it, I argue that certain mental states might well be necessary, but not sufficient for happiness. (Think, for example, about inhabitants of Nozick’s experience machine: happy mental states, but not a happy life. In the paper, I try to motivate the idea that this is not simply a verbal dispute.)
    I take it that this article is following on the heels of a recent study released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “The dynamics of daily events and well-being across cultures: When less is more” by Oishi, Shigehiro; Diener, Ed; Choi, Dong-Won; Kim-Prieto, Chu; Choi, Incheol. Summary here: “When Less Is More: Too Much Happiness May be Too Much of a Good Thing”:

  3. I wonder about the direction of causation. It’s assumed in the study that Blissfulness leads to good relationships and Contentedness to successful careers. Was the happiness levels measured before people entered into relationships or education/careers? I mean, if not, then it isn’t much of a surprise that being in (some?) relationships makes people blissful and being educated, having a good job and money makes people contented. Did we need research to know this?

  4. Jussi: Herbert reports: “Some of the studies were longitudinal, which means they could see if happiness at one age actually led to healthy functioning much later on.”
    Matthew, I think the study Herbert is talking about is a different one from the one you mention. The co-authors are different. Similar conclusions, though.

Comments are closed.