What the Second-Happiest People Get Right

If you make happiness your primary goal, you might miss out on the challenges that give life meaning.  

Illustration of a person whose face is obscured by frowning rainclouds, with a smiling sun peeking through
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

In 2007, a group of researchers began testing a concept that seems, at first blush, as if it would never need testing: whether more happiness is always better than less. The researchers asked college students to rate their feelings on a scale from “unhappy” to “very happy” and compared the results with academic (GPA, missed classes) and social (number of close friends, time spent dating) outcomes. Though the “very happy” participants had the best social lives, they performed worse in school than those who were merely “happy.”

The researchers then examined a data set from another study that rated incoming college freshmen’s “cheerfulness” and tracked their income nearly two decades later. They found that the most cheerful in 1976 were not the highest earners in 1995; that distinction once again went to the second-highest group, which rated their cheerfulness as “above average” but not in the highest 10 percent.

As with everything in life, happiness has its trade-offs. Pursuing happiness to the exclusion of other goals–known as psychological hedonism–is not only an exercise in futility. It may also give you a life that you find you don’t want, one in which you don’t reach your full potential, you’re reluctant to take risks, and you choose fleeting pleasures over challenging experiences that give life meaning.

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The way to understand the study above is not to deny that happiness is good; rather, it is to remember that a little bit of unhappiness has benefits. For instance, gloom has been found to aid in problem-solving. The author Emmy Gut argued in 1989 that some depressive symptoms can be a functional response to problems in the environment, leading us to pay appropriate attention and come up with solutions. In other words, when we are sad about something, we may be more likely to fix it. Psychologists call this the “analytical rumination hypothesis,” and it is supported by research.

Obviously, this is not to argue that clinical depression is good—misery can quickly render people incapable of solving problems. Nor am I saying that depression passes a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, the analytical-rumination hypothesis is evidence that getting rid of bad feelings does not necessarily make us more effective in our tasks. And if these emotions can help us assess threats, it stands to reason that too much good feeling can lead us to disregard them. The literature on substance use suggests that this is so: In some people, very high degrees of positive emotion have been connected to dangerous behaviors such as alcohol and drug use and binge eating.

An aversion to unhappiness can lead us to forgo a meaningful life. Indeed, as one group of researchers that surveyed college students in 2018 found, fear of failure is positively correlated with meaning derived from romance, friendship, and (to a lesser extent) family. When I talk with people about their fear of negative outcomes in life, their true source of fear in many cases centers on how they will feel about having failed, not about the consequences of the failure itself. This is similar to the way discomfort with uncertainty causes more anxiety than guaranteed bad news. To avoid these bad feelings, people give up all kinds of opportunities that involve the possibility of failure.

But bringing good things into your life, whether love, career success, or something else, usually involves risk. Risk doesn’t necessarily make us happy, and a risky life is going to bring disappointment. But it can also bring bigger rewards than a life played safe, as the study of happiness, academic achievement, and income suggests. Those with the highest performance at work and school made decisions that were probably unpleasant at times, and even scary.

None of this is to say that we should shun good feelings, or that we’re foolish for wanting to be happy. On the contrary, the desire for happiness is natural and normal. However, making the quest for positive feelings—and the fight to banish negative ones—your highest or only goal is a costly life strategy. Unmitigated happiness is impossible to achieve (in this mortal coil at least), and chasing it can be dangerous and deleterious to our success. But more important, doing so sacrifices many of the elements of a good life. As Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, has written, “It is the suffering that we choose that affords the most opportunity for pleasure, meaning, and personal growth.”

Happiness itself would lose its meaning were it not for the contrast that we inevitably experience with sadness. “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness,” Carl Jung said in an interview in 1960. “The word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” You can take Jung’s words to heart by committing to a regular practice of gratitude in which you give thanks not only for the things that make you happy but also for the ones that challenge you. It feels unnatural at first, but it will come easier each day.

Some of the most meaningful parts of our lives are a direct result of negative feelings that slipped through, despite our best efforts to block them out. For example, I am the father of three young adults; it was not long ago that my wife and I were going mano a mano with three teenagers. We lost a lot of sleep then, but I wouldn’t trade away a moment of those experiences (now that they are safely behind us).

Some people take these lessons to lengths that might seem unimaginable. One is Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. “If one imagines a soul of iron that weathers with grief and rusts with mild depression, then major depression is the startling collapse of a whole structure,” he wrote. But as he told an interviewer several years ago, he eventually found a way to love his depression. “I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy,” he said.

This, in a nutshell, is the paradox of being fully alive. To strive for relentless positivity is to aim for the dimensionality of a Hollywood movie or children’s book. So though suffering should never be anyone’s goal, each of us can strive for a rich life in which we not only seek the sunshine but fully experience the rain that inevitably falls as well.