Toxic Happiness: The Downsides of Too Much Joy

Rarely in life are things just “black” vs. “white” or “good” vs. “bad” – but instead different shades of grey.

In my post Depression: The Yin of Happiness, I describe how depressive states aren’t all bad. They can sometimes motivate us to reevaluate our lives and solve personal problems. So in many ways a period of depression can actually guide us to be more happy in the long-term.

The key idea is that while depression may usually be seen as solely “bad” or “negative,” it can actually serve a positive function, especially if our depression is triggered by events that we have control over.

On the other end, while depression can sometimes lead to more happiness, too much happiness can also sometimes lead to more depression.

A recent study by psychologists at Yale University has identified several downsides to “too much” happiness. Here are the main pitfalls they’ve found:

1. Expecting happiness…and then not getting it

We often read books and blogs (like this one) in order to find suggestions on how we can achieve a happier life. Common suggestions include thinking about what you are grateful for or helping others. While there is nothing wrong with these activities, when we do them with the sole expectation that they are supposed to make us happy, we can often be let down when we don’t get what we expect.

For example, in one study participants who read a newspaper article about how to be more happy ended up reporting less happiness after watching a happy film than those who read a newspaper article about a neutral topic. The reason? Those that read the article promoting happiness ended up creating unrealistic expectations about how happy the movie should make them feel. After they viewed it they became disappointed, resulting in feeling even worse than they would have felt if they just went in with no expectations.

2. Too much happiness can make us bad risk-takers

Another study discovered that too much happiness correlates with a shortened lifespan. Research suggests that highly elevated moods can make us more willing to engage in risky behaviors, like substance abuse, driving too fast, or gambling away our life savings. Our excess happiness can create a feeling of superiority and invincibility that often blows up in our face. In a healthy mind, “negative” emotions like fear and anxiety usually help deter us from this reckless behavior, but if we only experience joy and positivity then we don’t get the proper emotional warning signs.

3. When being happy is inappropriate

It’s usually not a good idea to attend a funeral while laughing or to have a big smile on your face while someone is telling you about a bad experience they once had. The fact is there are times in our life where it is appropriate to grieve and feel down. As positive psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar puts it: “We must give ourselves permission to experience the full-range of human emotions.” So instead of ignoring these unpleasant emotions, we should accept them, and even think of them as a necessary facet of the human experience. We should allow ourselves to empathize and encourage other’s feelings, without always needing to put on a facade of “everything is happy-go-lucky.”


We often need the lows in our lives to help define the highs. So when we ignore those lows or run away from them – when we only want and expect pure pleasure and joy – we end up adopting an unrealistic view of the world and only hurting ourselves more in the long-term.

True happiness – and true emotional intelligence – requires that we see the gifts in every emotion, not just joy and pleasure, but also temporary pain and suffering. When we acknowledge these inevitable ebbs and flows of life it becomes a lot easier to ride from one to the next.

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