By Published: Feb. 11, 2019

Coloradan Happiness Illustration

We stock our shelves with books and pills intended to make us happy, but CU psychologist June Gruber warns that too much of a good thing can backfire.

June Gruber was a wide-eyed graduate student in psychology and just beginning her clinical training when she met a patient who forever changed her view of happiness.

The woman, a middle-aged artist and mother of two, spoke with exuberance and optimism, describing big plans to change the world with paintings inspired by her direct conversations with the divine. But she also had trouble holding a job, lived in her car and generally scraped by.

“She seemed happy, but it was in a way that was making her neglect real-world concerns and causing her potential harm,” said Gruber, now an assistant professor of psychology at CU Boulder. “That really shook me.”

When Gruber, then at the University of California Berkeley, turned to the academic literature to learn more about the downsides of positive emotions, she found a mostly blank slate. She’s since been filling it, pioneering a new line of research and publishing more than 50 studies suggesting that feeling too much happiness, feeling it at the wrong time or striving too hard for it can be a problem.

“American culture is all about the pursuit of happiness,” Gruber said, seated in her pastel-hued office near a shelf crammed with self-help books like The How of Happiness and The Happiness Project. “It is framed as the purpose for which we are here — this thing that we all should aspire toward. But our research shows there are caveats.”

Too Much of a Good Thing

Gruber has a vibrant smile and seems like, well, a happy person. She takes it in stride when students in her Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory joke they’d better not laugh too much around her. And she’s quick to note that feeling good can be good for you by lowering your blood pressure, bolstering your immune system and promoting social bonds.

“I am not a happiness hater,” she said.

gruber and kids

June Gruber and her children. 

But Gruber contends that positive emotions deserve the serious scrutiny psychologists have given anger, sadness and other unpleasant feelings. After all, one in six Americans are taking antidepressants, and positive psychology self-help books still flood the shelves.

“It may be time for some recalibrating,” she said.

For Gruber’s first study, in 2008, she recruited college students to report their emotions as they watched short film clips that were either pleasant or unpleasant (a child crying over a parent’s death; the famous Trainspotting scene of a junkie fishing through a toilet in search of drugs). Surprisingly, Gruber found, a small subset reported positive emotions not only during the positive scenes but also during the disturbing ones.

On separate questionnaires, those students rated at highest risk for developing mania or bipolar disorder.

The bottom line: Feeling happy at inappropriate times can be a warning sign of something amiss.

“If you are in front of something threatening or sad or disgusting, it’s probably safer from an evolutionary perspective to feel empathy or disgust,” she said. “But for some people, positive emotions get in the way.”

Since then, her research has illuminated other intriguing downsides to our most-coveted emotion.

In one 2014 study of 121 students at Yale University, where Gruber was previously on the faculty, she found that people feeling happiness can be less empathetic toward individuals in pain.

Overly high levels of positive emotions can also lead to excess risk taking, including drug and alcohol use, driving too fast and promiscuous sex, her research has found.

“You basically are too caught up in the now and prioritize present positive feelings over long-term negative consequences,” she said.

Happiness is framed as the purpose for which we are here — this thing that we all should aspire toward. But our research shows there are caveats.”

While positive mood can be helpful for creative tasks, some studies show it can impair performance on more detail-oriented cognitive tasks like mathematical games.

Meanwhile, numerous experiments have found that, paradoxically, people who value happiness the most and strive hardest for it (as self-reported) are both less able to experience it in the moment and most likely to experience depression, loneliness and anxiety long-term.

“Their expectation to be happy is so high they can never quite meet it, so they are left wanting,” said Gruber.

Some evidence suggests this phenomenon may be especially common among college students, helping to drive an epidemic of mental health and substance-abuse problems. One in three college freshmen worldwide now report mental health difficulties, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization.

“I realize this problem is multi-factorial,” Gruber said, “but I do wonder: If we experience positive emotions in a way that neglects our negative emotions, could that be a pathway toward some of the problems that college students are experiencing?”

To find out, she recently launched a study of more than 500 CU Boulder freshmen in which she will follow them through their first year to assess things like emotional well-being, impulsivity, risk-taking behaviors and academic performance.

snake illustrationIf Not Happiness, What?

Gruber has already made a notable mark in psychology, says Dacher Keltner, faculty director of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and a leader in the study of happiness.

“June’s is a brilliant mind,” he said. “She is willing to challenge the status quo and she has reminded us that happiness is complex, and in the extremes, there is peril. Perhaps moderation may be the best path.”

That moderation may come in what Gruber and colleagues call “emodiversity,” a set of emotional states that includes positive and negative ones.

In one study, she and colleagues recruited 36,000 healthy adults to take online surveys about the emotions they felt during the day, categorizing them into eight positive and eight negative categories. Those who had greater emotional diversity — not those who had more positive emotions — had lower rates of depression.

“...Happiness is complex, and in the extremes, there is peril.”

In a similar study of 10,000 Belgian adults, Gruber and team found those with greater emotional diversity saw the doctor less, spent fewer days in the hospital and spent less money on health care.

“All of our emotions have a function. They give us information about the world around us, and they help keep us alive and surviving as a species,” she said, noting that anger, for instance, mobilizes us to confront obstacles. “Positive emotions are, of course, important too. But only if you experience them at the right time in the right amount and they are helping you get toward your goals.”

For children, she says, there can be times when it’s helpful to tone down the happiness — as when recess comes to an end and it’s time to stop giggling and take a test.

For adults, there are moments when it might be appropriate to quell positivity and get serious so we can be more empathetic toward someone experiencing loss.

And for college students, keeping their happiness expectations in check can go a long way.

“Working with June has helped me become more accepting of whatever my current emotions are,” said Cynthia Villanueva, a 2013 Berkeley graduate who now manages Gruber’s CU lab. “In not striving to be happy all the time, I think I have become happier.”

Gruber, a mother of two boys, practices what she preaches, viewing angry fights over toys or hurt feelings at the playground not as incidents to be prevented but as important episodes in emotional development.

In her own life, she keeps happiness in its place.

“I try not to set my goals based on how I can feel happier,” she said, “but rather on what can bring meaning.”

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Illustrations by Serge Bloch