Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Psychologists and the pursuit of happiness

Edited by Jill Wright,

According to the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, it's time for psychologists toiling away in Melbourne, or for that matter anywhere else in Western countries, to take into account the fact that a lot of people actually don't want to be happy.

New Zealanders, for instance, actually fear happiness, having developed something of a national consensus that joy gets followed by sadness, and they'd rather not tempt fate. Iranians have the same point of view and so do people from Taoist cultures.

The Japanese, on the whole, think that being too happy makes other people feel jealous. 

This discussion, which does tend to undermine the values enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, arises from some work by two researchers, Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers.

They suggest that the assumption under which many psychologists (and Thomas Jefferson et al.) operate - that the pursuit of happiness is not so much an unalienable right as perhaps the most important value underlying human life - is quite often wrong.

In fact, they point out "many individuals possess negative views about happiness",  and are quite often averse to any such thing.

Joshanloo and Weijers might be expected to be aware of the phenomenon, given that they both work in Wellington - a place where my husband quite often finds personal happiness, visiting his New Zealand relatives, despite the fact that he has to endure a lot of detailed analysis of the latest All Blacks victory over the Wallabies. I shall have to tell him to go a little easier on the happiness over there from now on.

You can read their very thoughtful study in a PDF here. In it, you'll discover that there are four reasons for feeling unhappy about being happy: 

  • believing that being happy will provoke bad things to happen 
  • that happiness will make you a worse person
  • that expressing happiness is bad for you and others
  • that pursuing happiness is bad for you and others

They point out that the American philosopher, Joel J. Kupperman, argues that extreme happiness might lead to negative consequences because it causes carelessness, which can result in catastrophic misfortune, including death. 

Kupperman is the author of Six Myths about the Good Life, which examines the question of happiness quite thoroughly, and makes some very worthy suggestions about what people might find enriching to pursue, instead of happiness. I can thoroughly recommend it to psychologists and their clients.



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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.