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Going to the Extreme with Strengths and Happiness

written by Sherri Fisher 3 February 2012

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Going to Extremes?

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.

Risky Rodeo

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.”

Too Strong?

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.

Emerging Questions

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:

  1. How much is too much of a strength, virtue, or positive experience?
  2. Why does the strength, virtue, or positive experience have undesirable effects?
  3. 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-UPerspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 61-76.

Image Credits

Happy courtesy of Alan Cleaver
Rodeo courtesy of Thomas Hawk
Mr Flip courtesy of Philip Kromer

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Kevin Simmons 3 February 2012 - 1:40 pm

This is a stimulating review of Schwartz and Grant’s research, Sherri. Thank you. Are there any methods or suggestions for determining whether and when a strength or trait is beginning to turn sour?

oz 3 February 2012 - 1:55 pm

Sherri – this may shock you but I’m going to say great article. PP at last is coming of age with some balance.

When you said “only one strength among the 24 from Seligman and Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues did not lead to extremes” I knew it was going to be self regulation.

Enjoy and keep up the balanced writing

Sherri Fisher 3 February 2012 - 3:17 pm

Hi, Kevin-
In my coaching and consulting work I find that the answer to your question is that people have problems. Things are not going well, or at least not as well as they would hope, and it is not a situation requiring therapy. So what is it? The shadow side of a strength, often times. Say you have the strength of critical thinking. Turn that up and you get just plain critical. That is not great for social relationships. Then there is the strength of curiosity. If you have a surplus of it, you might find yourself bored, or in a different context, nosy. Chris Peterson looks at strengths as what he calls “the real DSM”. Anything good taken to the extreme, either positive or negative, is the basis of a potential disorder. And that is what the meta-research says, too.

Sherri Fisher 3 February 2012 - 3:30 pm

Hi, Oz–
Thanks for the thumbs up. I’m glad that you are still reading my articles! 🙂

Lori 4 February 2012 - 5:52 pm

I liked the article a lot, but could not find a “share” button of twitter or facebook icon so that I could re-tweet and post it on facebook.

Editor K.H.B. 4 February 2012 - 10:57 pm

Glad you liked it. We do have a Retweet button — right under the author bio, on the right.


Annemarie Grahl 5 February 2012 - 4:57 pm

As with all things, strengths and what they do for us need to be considered in context and maybe “what is happiness anyway?” is a good place to start. If strengths were used in the context of achieving a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life (rather than just say “pleasant” which is so often equated with “happy”) maybe a balance would be provided that would circumvent the overuse of strengths.


Shane Smith 5 February 2012 - 7:57 pm

In answering the 3 questions
I guess I would use the same ideas that can be applied to the use of Drugs and Alcohol…
That when too much of a good begins to affect your overall functioning then this is when you have to much or gone to the extreme.

Sherri Fisher 6 February 2012 - 3:18 pm

Hi, Annemarie-
I agree. In coaching I have found that people are not generally working toward having too much of a strength! Instead, no matter what the context, clients are typically not doing enough of what I call “using your powers for good”. That means that while the researchers are looking to see what is too much, clients need are looking to balance their strengths to get more of what they do want, and the those extremes are symptoms, not failures of implementing positive interventions. Having said that, people may believe that they can do a certain exercise, and getting great results at first they might go overboard with it. So research says that you can overdose, as well as underdose, on positive emotion. But we already knew that, didn’t we? Just the same, it is important to have an empirical basis for what we do with clients. I’m glad to have the research 🙂

Sherri Fisher 6 February 2012 - 3:26 pm

Hi, Shane- Going to the extreme is, by definition, coloring outside of the lines. Like deciding whether to have two-alarm or five-alarm chili at your Super Bowl party, people may find that the “heat” can be determined by the Goldilocks factor: too cool, too hot or just right. In practice, I find strengths to be like that.


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