Sometimes, happiness is for bozos

Behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower imagines a famed clown's psychotherapy session to explain why the pursuit of happiness isn’t always a good thing.

SAN ANTONIO— In a midtown-Manhattan psychotherapist’s office, a new client adjusts his floppy, glow-in-the-dark shoes and nervously tugs at his multicolored shock of hair before starting to talk.

You might recognize me, doc. I’m Bozo. Bozo the Clown.

The circus is in town? How’d you get here today — cannon shot?

Spare me, doc. This is serious. I’ve lost my happiness. I’ve still got my pensiveness. But who wants to see a pensive clown? I need to be happy — make that slap happy.

You have a painted red smile plastered on your pasty face. You look menacing, not happy. No one smiles that much. You look like Bozo the Serial Killer.

That’s harsh, doc. Put yourself in my size 150s. Happiness is a job requirement for me. I can’t do my job when I’m having nightmares about kids asking me to make balloon animals for them.

Don’t you do that all the time?

In my nightmares, all the little buggers want porcupines.

You feel inadequate, I get it. But let’s deal with your happiness fetish. Happiness has its upside, of course. On average, happy people are healthy and satisfied. In real life, though, happiness isn’t appropriate in all situations and fits some people better than others. It’s even possible to have too much happiness. Psychologists presented the latest evidence on the perils of happiness in January at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Antonio.

You’re freaking me out. Do you have any Prozac? Cotton candy?

No. And I’m fresh out of Gummi Bears. Gnaw on this: Too much emotional zest can go seriously wrong, according to Yale University’s June Gruber. She studies people with bipolar disorder, who go through manic periods of such intense joy and abandon that they clean out their bank accounts in frivolous spending sprees and otherwise go wild. When not in a depressed phase, people with this condition are always — often inappropriately — primed for happiness. Their hearts race and their bodies generally rev up not just while watching inspiring videos but while viewing neutral or even upsetting scenes, Gruber finds. They cackle with delight when shown videos of their own tortured song renditions on a karaoke machine — the kind of thing that makes most tune-challenged crooners hide their faces in embarrassment.

Unless they’re contestants on American Idol. (Bozo guffaws and squeezes his big, red nose to make a rude beeping noise.)

Context is king, Bozo. Throw a bucketful of confetti into a circus crowd and the audience squeals with delight. Do that in the New York City subway and you’re dead meat. Maya Tamir of Hebrew University in Jerusalem finds that college students who prefer to be happy in situations that call for confrontation do worse in school and feel less satisfied with themselves than their peers who embrace anger when it’s necessary.

I’m Bozo the Clown. Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face. Brush off the clouds and cheer up, put on a happy face.

Don’t ever sing in my presence again. Some people don’t get jazzed by happiness. Consider individuals who score high on a personality trait called neuroticism. They specialize in negative feelings, so they’re on close terms with anxiety, guilt and sadness. If you tell them to look for the good side of a bad personal experience, they feel no better, says Weiting Ng of SIM University in Singapore. Other positive-thinking strategies also do nothing for high-neuroticism folks, she finds. They may not put a premium on happiness the way that the power-of-positive-thinking crowd does, Ng suggests.

I’m not like that, doc. I need my happiness. It’s my gift to the world. I’ll go c-c-c-cuckoo if I don’t find it. [He blows a tiny bugle hanging off his baggy outfit.]

Whew. Well, you and Thomas Jefferson may not like it, but the unrelenting pursuit of happiness can make people miserable. The happier you think you should be, the more likely you are to be disappointed, says Iris Mauss of the University of Denver. She finds that, when daily stresses are low, women who value happiness a lot report feeling worse than women who aren’t out to find their bliss. In another Mauss study, women shown a news report about the health benefits of happiness, which temporarily boosts their desire to be happy, get no emotional lift from watching a joyful film clip, unlike women not given the news story.

So I should be miserable? Misery breeds happiness? Ouch, my head hurts.

No. Do what you enjoy. Happiness will take care of itself. Don’t be surprised if it takes a vacation every now and then. I never thought I’d say this, but you’re thinking too much, Bozo.

Wow, thanks doc. I feel better — no, I mean worse — already.

My work is done. You can pay on the way out. No rubber checks.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Psychology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content