Founded in 2010, the Action for Happiness movement states: “What we want for our society is as much happiness as is possible and, above all, as little misery”. These aims are well-intentioned, but a new study shows public campaigns like this could have an ironic effect, actually making sad people feel sadder (update: please see the comments below where the Director of Action for Happiness, Mark Williamson, gives his response to this study).
Brock Bastian and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of Australian and Japanese students and found that those people who believed more strongly that society expects us to try to be happy, also tended to evaluate their own negative emotions more negatively. In other words, believing that there’s a cultural expectation to strive for happiness is associated with feeling sad about being sad. In turn, people who felt this societal expectation more keenly, also reported experiencing negative emotions more often and having poorer wellbeing (a fall-out that was mediated by these participants being more critical of their own negative emotions). Comparing across cultures, the overall pattern of results was present but weaker in Japan, where negative emotions are generally better tolerated.
These initial findings provided only a snapshot. To get a better sense of the causality of societal expectations, Bastian and his team conducted two further studies in which Australian participants were first primed with carefully prepared newspaper articles, and then prompted to feel negative emotion by reminiscing in writing about a negative event from their lives.
Reading a news article about research that claimed sadness is infectious or that sad people are disliked led participants to experience more negative emotion after they’d reminisced about a bad event in their past. It’s as if a reminder of society’s intolerance to negative emotion aggravated participants’ own negative feelings. By contrast, reading an article that said sad people are accepted and liked, led participants to experience less negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise.
Results from the control condition in this study were particularly revealing. In this case participants were primed with a mundane article about fertiliser. They experienced just as much negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise as participants who’d read the article about sad people being disliked. This suggests the reminder about society’s intolerance of negative emotions was unnecessary for aggravating the experience of sadness. “Social pressures appear to be highly normative and particularly so within Western cultures,” the researchers said.
Bastian and his colleagues said their findings show how our beliefs about society’s intolerance of negative emotions has downstream effects, changing how we experience our own emotions, “ironically aggravating those same emotions that are deemed to be socially undesirable or unacceptable.”
“Attempts to promote the value of feeling good over the value of feeling bad by emphasising social norms for these emotions may therefore have the effect of making people feel bad more often,” the researchers concluded.
Bastian B, Kuppens P, Hornsey MJ, Park J, Koval P, and Uchida Y (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12 (1), 69-80 PMID: 21787076
-Further reading- Other people may experience more misery than you realise.