Research finds countries that focus more on happiness may end up making people feel worse
Have you looked at the international rankings of the happiest countries in the world lately?
Measuring a country’s subjective levels of happiness has become something of an international sport. People look with interest (and a bit of jealousy) on countries like Denmark, which consistently top the global happiness charts.
It has also led to Danish practices such as the “hygge” lifestyle which are gaining popularity elsewhere. If only we could add more comfort to our lives, we might be as happy as the Danes!
But is living in one of the happiest nations in the world all it’s meant to be? What if you struggle to find or maintain happiness in a sea of (supposedly) happy people?
In our new research, published in Scientific reportswe found that in countries that rank highest for national happiness, people are also more likely to experience poor well-being due to societal pressure to be happy.
So living in happier countries can be good for many. But for some, it can end up feeling too much to live with and have the opposite effect.
Expand our search
For several years, my colleagues and I have been conducting research on the social pressure people may feel to experience positive emotions and avoid negative emotions.
This pressure is also communicated to us through channels such as social media, self-help books and advertising. Eventually, people develop a sense of the kinds of emotions that are valued (or not) by those around them.
Ironically, our previous research has shown that the more pressure people feel to feel happy and not sad, the more likely they are to experience depression.
Although this previous research primarily focused on people living in Australia or the United States, we were curious how these effects might be evident in other countries as well.
For our latest study, we asked 7,443 people from 40 countries about their emotional well-being, life satisfaction (cognitive well-being), and mood disorders (clinical well-being). We then weighed this against their perception of social pressure to feel positive.
What we found confirmed our previous findings. Around the world, when people report feeling pressured to experience happiness and avoid sadness, they tend to experience mental health deficits.
That is, they are less satisfied with their life, more negative emotions, less positive emotions, and higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Interestingly, our global sample allowed us to go beyond our previous work and examine whether there were differences in this relationship between countries. Are there countries where this relationship is particularly strong? And if so, why might that be?
Not a uniform problem
To investigate this, we obtained data for each of the 40 World Happiness Index counties, collected by the Gallup World Poll. This index is based on subjective happiness ratings of large-scale nationally representative samples.
This allowed us to determine how the overall happiness of a nation, and therefore the social pressure exerted on individuals to be happy, could influence the well-being of individuals.
We found that the relationship did indeed change and was stronger in countries that ranked higher in the Global Happiness Index. In other words, in countries like Denmark, the social pressure felt by some people to be happy was particularly predictive of poor mental health.
That’s not to say that on average people aren’t happier in these countries – apparently they are – but that for those who already feel a lot of pressure to hold their heads up high, living in happier countries can lead to less well-being.
Why might this be the case? We felt that being surrounded by a sea of happy faces can compound the effects of already feeling socially driven to be happy.
Of course, signs of other people’s happiness are not limited to the explicit expression of happiness, but are also evident in other, more subtle cues, such as having more social contacts or engaging in pleasurable activities. These signals tend to be stronger in happier countries, increasing the effects of social expectations.
In these countries, feeling happy can easily be seen as the expected norm. This adds to the social pressure people feel to adhere to this standard and exacerbates the fallout for those who do not meet it.
What is the solution ?
So what can we do? On a personal level, feeling and expressing happiness is a good thing. But as other research has shown, sometimes it’s good to be sensitive to how our expression of positive emotions can affect others.
While it’s good to bring happiness and positivity to our interactions, it’s also good to know when to tone it down — and avoid alienating those who may not share our joy in the moment.
More generally, it may be time to rethink how we measure national well-being. We already know that thriving in life is not just about positive emotion, but also about responding well to negative emotions, valuing discomfort, and focusing on other factors such as meaning and interpersonal connection.
Perhaps it’s time to rank countries not only on their happiness, but also on their safety and openness to the full range of human experiences. – The Talk | Rappler.com
Brock Bastian is a Professor at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.