People who feel greater pressure to be happy report feeling worse all round, research finds.
The pressure to feel positive emotions is linked to more symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.
It underlines the fact that the pressure to achieve what are, for many, unattainable emotions and ways of being is exhausting.
Ironically, then, the pressure to be happy can make you sad.
The conclusions come from a study that compared the well-being and the societal pressure to be happy of over 7,000 people in 40 different countries.
People who feel the largest pressure to be happy are those who live in countries which have high average levels of happiness, such as Nordic countries and Canada.
Dr Egon Dejonckheere, the study’s first author, said:
“The level of happiness individuals feel pressured to achieve may be unattainable and reveal differences between an individual’s emotional life and the emotions society approves of.
This discrepancy between an individual and society may create a perceived failure that can trigger negative emotions.
In countries where all citizens appear to be happy, deviations from the expected norm are likely more apparent, which makes it more distressing.”
The researchers used data from the World Happiness Index, which rates the happiest countries in the world as:
- New Zealand
The United Kingdom comes 17th on the list, with the United States at 19th (the Canadians come 14th).
Feeling bad about feeling sad
Society’s expectations work negatively for negative emotions, just as they work negatively for positive emotions.
Other studies have also shown that people feel bad about feeling sad (Bastian, 2012).
When people perceive that others expect them to hide their sadness, they feel even worse.
As a result of societal pressure not to express negative emotions, people also evaluate themselves more negatively on top of feeling worse in the moment (Dejonckheere & Bastian, 2021).
Quite naturally, both these effects, on people’s thoughts and emotions, are linked to symptoms of depression (Dejonckheere et al., 2017).
One of the reasons seems to be that the culture of happiness increases people’s tendency to repeatedly think about their failures (McGuirk et al, 2018).
The study’s authors write:
“Humans value happiness.
Around the world, individuals share a similar aspiration to lead a satisfying and happy life, yet there is also an emerging recognition that this personal quest in itself may have well-being consequences.
Placing a premium on the value of positive emotion is known to paradoxically undermine our well-being, not only as a function of how we value happiness ourselves, but also as a function of how the society we live in emphasizes the importance of being happy.”
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (Dejonckheere et al., 2022).