Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.
— William S. Burroughs
Happiness is a blindfold. When we have a smile on our face and a skip in our step, we may be vulnerable to unhealthy behaviors that we would otherwise avoid. It may sound depressing to say that even happiness can be a harm. We already have to put up with the constant guilt-tripping and fear-mongering from the media and our friends about foods we shouldn’t eat and decisions we shouldn’t make. I certainly don’t want to add to those frustrations. But we can learn a lot about ourselves by taking a step back and looking at our own experiences with a fresh and neutral perspective.
I am specifically talking about happiness here, but in fact, all of our emotions have two sharp edges to the sword. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things like jumping off buildings, but can also hold us back from helpful activities like public speaking. Anger acts as a deterrent to people who want to take advantage of us, but can also make us feel unpleasant for days. We need a balanced emotional life and an awareness of the dangers that may come with each of our experiences.
So what exactly could the downsides of happiness be? Think about the last time you were joyful and you’ll probably recall a general positive feeling that took over your whole self. Our emotions are strange in that they rarely remain focused on a single object. When I’m happy because I’ve made a new friend or got a new job, I’m also happy about everything else around me. The emotion spreads. Even the pains that were previously on my mind achieve a strange new cheerful perspective.
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The basis of optimism is sheer terror.
— Oscar Wilde
Our good moods may drive what has been called “the optimism bias” (you can watch a TED talk about this here). This refers to our general tendency to overestimate the chances of a positive future for our personal lives and underestimate the chances of a negative future. We are more likely to get cancer than we think, and less likely to secure that amazing job than we think.
Interestingly, patients with depression do not show this optimism bias. Their negative moods mean that they are neutral in their outlook, at least in the case of mild depression. And when people suffer from severe depression, they show the opposite of the optimism bias: a pessimism bias in which they overestimate the chances of a negative future for themselves. Our emotions take over our entire psychology and distort the way we see the world.
Optimism is often a good thing of course; it motivates us to take on new challenges and prevents us from giving up. But sometimes, excessive confidence can provide fertile ground for painful failures. If we can develop realistic expectations without harming our desire to enthusiastically chase new goals, we may end up with fewer disappointments and less devastating defeats in the future. It’s worth playing with our psychological balance of motivation vs expectation, to test what really works best for us.
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Our overblown optimism extends into the world of sport. When fans of NFL football teams were asked how many games they believed their team would win in the current sports season, they consistently predicted that their favorite teams would win more games than average, and that teams they disliked would win fewer than average. This optimistic gap between liked and disliked teams was actually larger for the fans with better knowledge about NFL rules. Football fans, including ESPN experts who follow a specific team, overestimate the chances of their favorite teams winning. So our optimism biases don’t only apply to our own thoughts and behaviors, but also apply to other people or organizations that we feel affiliated with.
A study in 2016 took the investigation of happiness contamination a little further. First, they collected data on major sports outcomes (wins/losses) for New York City teams in the NFL (football), NBA (basketball), MLB (baseball), and NHL (ice hockey). Then, they computed what are called prediction errorsfor those outcomes, because these are psychologically salient signals in the human brain. When a team is expected to perform poorly in a game, but the outcome is better than expected, that is a positive prediction error. When a team is expected to perform well but performs poorly, that is a negative prediction error.
The researchers decided to examine whether people’s gambling behavior had anything to do with these prediction errors in sports outcomes. So in addition to the sports data, they also collected data on lottery purchases in New York City at the times of the sports outcomes. They found a fascinating correlation between the sports outcomes and the lottery data. More positive prediction errors for sports outcomes (unexpected successes) led to more gambling the next day among city residents. More negative prediction errors (unexpected losses) led to less gambling.
The effects on gambling were specific to the performance of NYC teams. When the researchers looked for an association between NYC gambling and performance of teams in other areas of the US, they found none. Local jubilation is what seems to drive the uptick in gambling.
To confirm whether the extra gambling was driven by good moods in the city, the researchers analyzed another happiness-related metric: the levels of sunshine in the city on the days that people gambled. They computed similar prediction error values for the weather as they did for the sports outcomes. When the sun came out following cloudy days, that was a positive prediction error. When there was surprisingly heavy cloud cover after a lot of sun, that was a negative prediction error.
Consistent with the effects of sports outcomes, surprisingly sunny days led to increased gambling activity, and surprisingly cloudy days led to decreased gambling activity. And once again, the weather in distant places like California had no effect on NYC people’s lottery purchases. On top of that, the effects of both sports and sunshine applied equally well to rich and poor neighborhoods.
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Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.
— Dale Carnegie
If the data above convinces you of one thing, it should be that emotion has global effects on what we think and what we do. For good or for bad, it’s rare that we restrict our reactions to the events that cause them. Although it feels great when we are happy, we may be driven to take greater risks, and we may develop unrealistically positive expectations about the future that set us up for disappointment.
There is value in increasing our awareness of our emotional states and experiences. It’s easy for our emotions to push us toward unhealthy behaviors when we lose track of them. During our next moments of elation that come with a good night out or a surprising pay rise, we can try to maintain a realistic humility and calm appreciation. That’s not putting a cap on our positive experiences; it may actually increase how long we stay happy. When we can be happy while preserving sensible expectations for the future, we minimize the chances of knocking our joy off-track with the next minor challenge that we face. For most people, including me, that frustration occurs all too often, and it does not have to.
Successes and sunshine aren’t always good news. Like any experience, we can search for the good in the bad, and be wary of the bad in the good. Perhaps we’ll find the silver lining next time our favorite sports team loses on a cloudy day.