Maurice Schweitzer discusses his research on the downside of happiness
The pursuit of happiness is so intrinsic to the American psyche that the phrase was written into the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But new research suggests that just like ice cream and chocolate cake, too much happiness can be detrimental to our well-being. Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, found that abundantly happy people are perceived as innocent and unsophisticated, which makes them more vulnerable to deception. Schweitzer recently spoke about his research and explained why extremely happy people may want to dial it down on the [email protected] show on SiriusXM’s Channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: What got you to look at this topic?
Maurice Schweitzer: Happiness is something that we tend to think is always good. There’s a positive psychology field that says we should be positive, upbeat, we should strive for happiness. The pursuit of happiness is deeply embedded in our national thinking. Yet sometimes people who are very happy are exactly the kinds of people who are exploited. That’s what we document in our research, where we look at people who are very happy. If they seem more happy than baseline happiness — people who are very happy, always chipper, always upbeat — they strike us as naive. We found that link consistently. One of the most robust findings in our research is that people see very happy individuals as naive, and in our last couple of studies we found that people are more likely to exploit those individuals.
[email protected]: Unfortunately, there are people out there who will take advantage of a situation. When they see others with characteristics of this happiness, do they figure that is someone they can take advantage of?
Schweitzer: It’s as if we’re making this reverse inference. We know the expression that “ignorance is bliss.” We think people who are just shielding themselves from all of this negative information out there are the people that might be truly and deeply happy. But we seem to have sort of flipped that, and this reverse inference is that we see people who are very happy and assume they must be ignorant. We assume they are not looking deeply into the national headlines; they’re not looking deeply at the world around them. We assume that if they’re happy, it’s because they’re not thinking carefully or investigating things around them.
[email protected]: Being happy a lot of the time shouldn’t be a negative, but do happy people have to have a little level of cynicism or angst in their life to balance things out?
“Sometimes people who are very happy are exactly the kinds of people who are exploited.”
Schweitzer: Yes. It’s almost as if we’re looking around for people who are happy. The baseline is some happiness, but when people go above that, when they’re expressing it on their faces, the reaction they get is totally different from just sort of regular happiness or the normal ups and down that we have during the day. The very and consistently happy people are just perceived to be naive, like they’re just not paying attention.
[email protected]: I’ve kind of seen that situation happen with me at times. Not that I’m the happy guy all the time, but it’s almost an annoyance to other people.
Schweitzer: We looked at how annoying people found it, and we were expecting to find that people found it more annoying than they did. We found some mixed evidence, but people don’t automatically or axiomatically hate that really happy person, though you could imagine that person being annoying. But what we consistently found was that we have these beliefs that somebody who’s that happy must not being pay close attention. And if you’re going to pull one over on someone or you want an easy negotiation partner or you want someone you might exploit, it’s that super-happy person that’s the target. That’s the person you’re looking to exploit. That’s the person who gets bad information.
[email protected]: Does this play into the “good cop, bad cop” scenario?
Schweitzer: What’s interesting about the contrast effect is that you might have that bad cop that makes even the moderately happy person seem extremely happy and very reasonable. So, that contrast could be a very useful tool. The reality is the studies that we did were mostly in North America with very small samples from abroad. It’s worth being cautious about how we extend this because in the United States people are pretty happy. I think if we were to go abroad to Germany or northern European countries, we might find even more extreme results because people who are very happy might seem particularly naive in those contexts. Maybe American-level happiness might strike others as very naive.
[email protected]: Explain why these are also people that tend to shelter themselves from negative information. Are they doing it because they want to build a wall around their world of happiness?
Schweitzer: So that’s the mechanism that we found. That is, when you see somebody who is very happy, you assume that they’re not paying close attention. They’re not going out and finding out negative information around them; they’re not listening to your show; they’re not reading the newspaper. We assume that they’re sheltering themselves from negative information. As a result, we assume that they’re naive and subject to exploitation.
What’s interesting is that when we showed people really happy people and told them that they actually do go out and search information — they are consumers of the news and world around them — it muted that effect. They believe that the very happy person is just not paying close attention to the world around them. But if you signal that, “Yeah, I am extremely happy. I’m also aware of everything that’s happening around me,” then the effect goes away.
[email protected]: Some of this data has to be interesting from a business perspective. It probably can have an economic impact on the success of a business.
Schweitzer: Part of the way I think about it is there are some people who are very upbeat, very happy, who believe that happiness is going to be motivating and inspiring and attractive. Some of that is true, but as leaders we need to also be quite mindful of the fact that when we exude a great deal of happiness, we may also need to address concerns about how wise we are about the world.
[email protected]: This really has an effect for managers of a company or those moving up the ladder to the C-suite.
Schweitzer: I think that’s exactly right. Think about managers as they get promoted and evaluated, how wise or how naive they are, and also as we think about sales force. We often prescribe to people that you have to be happy, you have to demonstrate this happiness, [yet in doing so] we might be signaling something about our company or about our employees that they’re not the smartest or wisest people out there if they are constantly happy all the time.
[email protected]: Does it signal anything about our culture as it is right now? Go back