OPINION: Forced happiness makes us feel bad

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Joyous New Year.

These are the greetings we have grown accustomed to hearing at the close of the year and, though we may not realize it when we call out to friends, family or strangers, those wishes can sound more like a directive to anyone who isn’t feeling the holiday spirit.

The hyping of happiness is in overdrive this time of year, but it never really goes away.

Employers want happy employees, not the quiet quitters we have been talking about.

Our social media feeds are highlight reels of carefree days rather than the real-life roller coaster most of us ride.

The self-help industry is on its way to a $13 billion bonanza as we increasingly take our happiness into our own hands.

We are a culture or more expressly, a country, obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. We will do most anything to make ourselves, and others, believe we are content all the time, but that constant drive for happy feelings is taking a toll on our health.

Depending on the source and the year, Georgia is a pretty happy state. It placed 19th in Wallet Hub’s 2022 rankings of the happiest U.S. states, but received its lowest ranking (32nd) for work environment, one of the three key dimensions on which states were compared.

I consider myself a realist rather than a booster of relentless happiness, but even I was concerned when two close friends told me their spirits were less than bright this holiday season.

One friend was juggling unhappiness at work and home. The other friend was just feeling melancholy.

Both friends berated themselves for feeling out of sorts. Both wanted to be in a better place. Both felt guilty that they weren’t exploding with happiness and were worried about what their bosses, friends and family would think if they couldn’t get to a higher level of happiness, and fast.

But Fadel Matta, Terry Dean’s Advisory Council distinguished professor at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, argues that while happiness is a great goal and a preferable state of mind, it is better not to fake those feelings when you are starting from a low point.

In a recent study, Matta tracked daily emotions of hundreds of workers at different organizations throughout the U.S. Even when people ended up in a place of happiness, the benefits were erased if participants took a steep emotional journey to get there, Matta said.

“When people take these trajectories where they have a sharper emotional journey toward pleasure and away from pain, they were more depleted,” said Matta when we talked.

The results held even when researchers took tests out of the workplace and into the laboratory.

“Being in a happy state is good for you, but chasing that happy state can have consequences for you that are negative,” Matta said.

This study was not about emotion regulation — the ability to exert control over our emotional state, Matta said. “It’s all about the slope that you are taking. The steeper the trajectory, the worse it is for you.”

Those long emotional journeys are hard on your regulatory resources and your well-being, he said.

“We have a limited pool of self-regulating resources that get depleted throughout the day. As you try to conform to norms in the workplace, it taxes that pool,” Matta said. “People are more likely to do bad things at the end of the day.”

While we don’t want to experience a loss of self-control, we do sometimes need to sit with negative feelings.

“They tell us that something is wrong — that we need to take corrective action. We don’t always need to run away from those,” Matta said.

Though outside the scope of Matta’s study, there is a lot of research about how to accept negative feelings in order to move beyond them.

Many psychologists support a research-backed practice called radical acceptance, which teaches you to habitually accept negative emotions in order to feel fewer negative emotions over time and support positive mental health.

“Ultimately, there is no denying that positive emotions are good. The conclusion I would draw is that unilateral pursuit of happiness … should not uniformly be the goal,” Matta said. “Negative emotions are sometimes beneficial.”

It is OK to be more Grinch than Clark Griswold or more Scrooge than Santa. There must be space for it all, if that is where you need to be.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.