The Dark Side of Happiness (Friedman 94-97)

We all want to be happy; it’s a natural desire in us all.

Many of us spend our lives trying to be happy, or to find the ‘secret of eternal happiness’ (if such a thing exists).

Whether we realize it or not, most of our decisions are made with our happiness in mind. And with good reason; happiness is a great good.

Photo by Fernando Brasil on Unsplash

However, is happiness all that it’s cracked up to be?

Psychology professor Ed Deci says no.

When we’re completely consumed with trying to be happy all the time, we overlook the value of unhappy emotions, such as anger, embarrassment, and shame, Ed says. Those emotions and experiences may not feel very pleasant when they’re happening, but they exist for a reason.

“Negative emotions help direct our attention to elements of our environment that require a response. Artificially blunting negative emotions comes with a cost; it prevents us from acknowledging errors and adapting our behaviors.”

In a 2011 article, psychologists June Gruber, Iris Mauss, and Maya Tamir found other ways in which feeling bad can serve our interests.

  • Sadness: “When we are sad, we send a social signal to those around us that we need help. Think about the last time you saw someone cry. If you’re like most people, you felt an immediate impulse to provide comfort and support. It’s the sadness that drew you in.”
  • Guilt: “[Feeling guilty] motivates us to repair something damaging we’ve done to hurt a relationship.”
  • Embarrassment: “It tells us we’ve committed a social infraction and pushes us to make amends.”

Interestingly, research suggests another downside to excessive happiness: an increased tendency for making mistakes.

When we’re happy, we grow confident, which at times can lead us to overestimate our abilities and ignore potential dangers. We can become more trusting, less critical, and occasionally unrealistic.

So, what are we to make of these findings?

1) Happiness in the workplace is beneficial, but only up to a point.

“As a general rule, employees who are happy at their job are more productive than those who feel dissatisfied. But extreme levels of happiness can also interfere with work quality. Despite what we often hear, happiness in the workplace is simply not an unqualified good.”

2) Feeling happy can make us better at certain aspects of our jobs while also making us worse at others.

“Instead of simply assuming that intense happiness will improve everyone’s performance, it’s wise for managers to first consider the types of activities employees are expected to do.”

An emotional climate that works for a team of salespeople may not work for a group of accountants.

3) Happiness all the time is not all good.

When organizations convey an expectation that every employee should feel happy at work all the time, they set them up for failure. It’s good to promote happiness in the workplace, but not to make it a job requirement. Studies show that the more pressure we place on ourselves to feel happy, the less likely we are to succeed.

And as we’ve seen, negative emotions can occasionally be useful and actually improve performance on certain tasks, particularly ones requiring persistence and attention to detail.

Question for you

In my experience, I’ve found that happiness comes more often when it is not sought after as a goal in itself, but rather as a result of seeking something else, e.g a meaningful goal.

When we’re so focused on being happy all the time, we actually end up being unhappy.

What do you think about that?

Agree? Disagree? Agree to disagree? Let us know in the comments ?


Friedman, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Perigee, 2015.

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