Difficult times can be depressing for anyone, but perhaps not for you. Your partner may feel unhappy about a precarious economic situation in your household, or about arguments with children, in-laws, or people at work. Others in your circle may be depressed by the events happening in the news. They may fear that their country’s leaders don’t care about them and are making poor decisions that will affect their ability to thrive. The reporting of a flood, hurricane, earthquake or mass shooting may leave them feeling sad for the victims, but also personally vulnerable should such events hit home. It seems that all you talk about with these individuals is negatively tinged, and you leave these conversations wondering how to hold on to your own sense of optimism. New research suggests a surprising way to insulate your mood from being dragged down by the negativity of others while at the same time helping them cope with their own negative emotions.
According to Lucy McGuirk of the University of South Wales (Australia) and colleagues (2018), the route to happiness may involve, oddly enough, not thinking about happiness at all. She and her fellow researchers maintain that the social norm maintaining that happiness is the best way to live a fulfilling live has a downside: “Although placing value on happiness may have benefits when we feel happy, could it be that such cultural climates exacerbate our negative emotional experiences?” In other words, feeling pressured to be happy can itself create unhappiness which, in turn, becomes detrimental to your mental health.
This debunking of the happiness myth would have implications for your emotional state when the people around you are stressed, depressed, and angry. You feel that they’re taking away from your own good mood which, in turn, causes you to feel resentful and worried. You worry too that there’s something wrong with being unhappy in a culture that values bliss. Your lack of empathy for their feelings, moreover, can make their inner experiences even more painful. They want to be heard, but you don’t want to listen.
The study conducted by McGuirk and her coauthors set out to test the problems that individuals experience when “happiness has become a cultural obsession” (p. 755). In the words of the authors, the overpromotion of happiness becomes self-defeating because when people expect to be happy, they actually are not. Secondly, people can become overly and needlessly threatened by their negative mood states. They feel that they’re not managing to live up to “salient and desired social values” (p. 756), and therefore feel like failures.
The Australian researcher and her fellow investigators believe that the key to avoiding the social pressure to feel happy all the time is to be able to distance yourself from this expectation. When you’re convinced that you have to be happy, because society tells you that you should be, don’t let yourself be dragged down by tendency to ruminate or reflect on where you’re falling short. Avoiding rumination, then, should help you protect yourself from being brought down by your own negative states, or those of the people in your life. The authors tested this proposition in two studies examining the relationships among promotion of happiness, rumination on negative feelings, and well-being.
In the first study, McGuirk et al. used an experimental design to manipulate happiness expectations among three groups of about 40 first-year psychology student participants. In one group, participants completed a negative mood-inducing task in a context emphasizing the importance of happiness in a room decorated with happiness books and motivational posters, with a highly cheerful experimenter in charge. The researchers led participants led to feel they failed by giving them an impossible anagrams task (i.e. anagrams with no solution), and then telling them that they should have gotten more answers right. In the second group, participants completed the same stressful task in a room that had neutral decorations, and in the third, participants were in a neutrally decorated room but were not led to feel they had failed because they were told the task was difficult. The failure/no failure manipulation was followed by a rumination task, in which the research team had participants attempt to engage in a 5-minute breathing task while being interrupted 12 times and asked to state what they were thinking. Higher rumination was indicated by the participants stating that they had negative thoughts, and higher failure-induced rumination by the participants stating that those negative thoughts were about the anagram task. Participants also completed a mood rating scale before and after the experiment.
As the authors expected, participants were more likely to engage in anagram-related rumination when they were in the happy room and given the failure induction than when their failure was induced in a neutral room or when they were in a neutral room with no failure induction. In other words, being exposed to a situation in which happiness was dictated to be the social norm and then failing created an inner sense of turmoil which participants could not successfully deflect. Furthermore, the tendency to engage in rumination focused on the anagram task was in turn correlated with the negative ratings that participants gave to their post-task ratings of mood.
The second study used a correlational approach in which an online sample of 227 adults (average age 21 years old) rated the frequency and intensity with which they experienced 4 negative emotions (“When you feel depressed/sad/anxious/stressed, what is your experience of it like?”), social expectancies regarding negative emotions (e.g. “I think society accepts people who feel depressed or anxious”), the tendency to ruminate, and a standard measure of depressive symptoms. Other controls were also imposed to rule out the role of social anxiety in general, the desire to give socially acceptable responses, and personality.
The results of the questionnaire study confirmed those of the experimental investigation, showing that people who felt it was important to seem happy and non-depressed due to social expectations were also more likely to engage in rumination when they experienced negative moods. These social expectations, the authors maintain, can shift such that if you feel happy when you’re expected to feel sad, you will feel that there’s something wrong with you. However, the pressure to be happy due to cultural expectations that people “should” be happy presents a social norm that has a stronger effect on people than the norm that people should be unhappy, angry, or stressed. In other words, when you’re unhappy in a culture that values happiness above all else, ruminating over your own negative inner state will create an ironic effect of increasing your unhappiness even more.
Returning to the question of how to maintain your happiness when others around you are not, in a culture that emphasizes happiness, the McGuirk et al. study suggests that you make a conscious effort to avoid ruminating on your own “deviant” inner state in relation to the people around you. You should also allow yourself to dip your toe into their unhappy waters without becoming overly preoccupied with whatever negative emotions you experience. The next step is for you to normalize the experience of the people who express their unhappiness. Show that you accept their feelings for what they are rather than make them feel that there’s something wrong with them. The less you or anyone ruminates about negative feelings in an unproductive, mood-deflating way, the more fulfillment you, and those you care about, can experience.