Not Everyone Thinks Extreme Happiness Is an Ideal State of Being

Being happy—but not too happy—is the safest route.

Photo: Dustin and Jennifer Stacey

In the U.S., reminders to be happy accost us wherever we go. Right now, you can hear that meassage loudest and clearest whenever you turn on the radio and Pharrell Williams' annoyingly catchy "Happy" starts playing, as, inevitably, it will. Even if you don't listen to the radio, "Happy" is inescapable. Cute dogs, the U.N., Star Wars characters—it seems like everyone is in on this.

Pharrell didn't invent this sentiment, of course: America has long been a land rife with smiley face logos and refrains of "Don't worry, be happy!" The underlying message seems to be that if you're not happy, there is something wrong with you. Psychologists from Victoria University of Wellington recently explained this phenomena in a paper

A common view in contemporary Western culture is that personal happiness is one of the most important values in life. For example, in American culture it is believed that failing to appear happy is cause for concern. These cultural notions are also echoed in contemporary Western psychology (including positive psychology and much of the research on subjective well-being).

However, as the researchers go on to point out, for many people and cultures across the world, this smiley outlook is not the norm. "For some individuals, happiness is not a supreme value," they write. "In fact, some individuals across cultures are averse to various kinds of happiness for several different reasons."

Take people living in the Middle East, near Iran, for example. If things get too good for them, traditional superstitions state that the evil eye will be cast upon them, and they will fall into misfortune. Being happy—but not too happy—is therefore the safest route.

In countries such as Japan, on the other hand, individual pursuit of happiness can be seen as being at odds with the good of society, and people who put their own feelings first risk being perceived as selfish. Even in the West, the authors found, some people share a similar mentality, feeling that people who are overly happy come across as boring and shallow. 

So next time some guy tells you to smile or asks you why you're not being chirpy enough, feel free to inform him that plenty of people have an aversion to extreme happiness. There's nothing flawed or out of the ordinary about that. And if that wipes the smile off his face, well, good. 

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