Imagine that you had an application that would guarantee your happiness. How happy would you want to be? Would you go for “Can’t complain,” or maybe “Delighted,” is more your style? Perhaps you’d want to be “Jubilant” or even “Ecstatic!”
If some happiness is good, is more even better?
For thousands of years philosophers have debated this, and now positive psychology researchers have conducted a meta-study to explore the costs of extremes. Researchers Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College), author of the extremely popular book The Paradox of Choice, and Adam Grant (Wharton School of Business) have explored whether there really is such a thing as too much happiness or an extreme amount of strengths, to the point that they become counterproductive for well-being.
No Such Thing as Unmitigated Good
So what are the costs of the extremes? Schwartz and Grant are clear about this: “There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs, and high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.”
Further, they warn that while overall, positive psychology interventions have been valuable for improving psychological well-being and for reducing the symptoms of depression, this may have led to an unsupportable assumption that more is better and that strengths (positive traits) and positive emotions have no dark side. Grant and Schwartz stress that at very high levels, nearly all positive effects actually begin to turn negative.
For example, while moderate levels of positive emotion enhance creativity, very high levels do not. While happier people live longer on average, intensely happy people engage in risky behaviors and live shorter lives. When looking for pictures of rodeo riders to illustrate this point, I found several, including one where the rider was already wearing a sling on his right arm!
Moderately happy people, the ones we call chronically happy (or happy over a long period of time), earn significantly more than their unhappy counterparts, but extremely happy people actually earn lower salaries. Moderate levels of optimism support confidence and improve planning, but very high optimism (what we might call unrealistic optimism), can lead to a lack of awareness of risks and therefore poor preparation when facing challenges. Even people with extremely high self-efficacy may stick with a strategy that dooms them to failure instead of second-guessing themselves.
All of this makes sense when we step from the Positive Psychology world into the traditional one, where extreme happiness is “mania” and extreme persistence is “obsession.”Why Does It Matter?
So why are researchers in the field of Positive Psychology so interested in reminding us about the limitations of extremes in the search for the good life? Interestingly, in the Schwartz and Grant metastudy, only one strength among the 24 from Seligman and Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues did not lead to extremes. Even the ones that are widely associated with happiness, such as love, gratitude, zest, optimism, and curiosity, not only cease to be effective at very high levels; they can lead to unhappiness and even danger.
So what is the one strength that does not seem to have diminishing marginal utility? Self-regulation. Apparently you cannot have too much of a strength that regulates itself. So there is no extreme self-regulation, for then you are not regulating yourself, by definition.
Fortunately, Grant and Schwartz are not sounding the alarm that actions for increasing positive emotion and positive experience or for enhancing strengths and virtues are a danger to us all. What they are recommending is that researchers expand the scope of “theoretical and methodological progress” to deepen our understanding of the effects, both positive and negative, of our character traits, psychological states, and experience. Three questions guide this recommendation:
- How much is too much of a strength, virtue, or positive experience?
- Why does the strength, virtue, or positive experience have undesirable effects?
- When does the strength, virtue, or positive experience have negative outcomes?
You may think that there would be a “different strokes for different folks” sort of answer for each of these, but Grant and Schwartz remind us that while individuals may differ somewhat, overall, the evidence is clear that too much of a good thing is just that. How would you answer the three questions?
Grant, A. & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted-U, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 61-76.