If an alien descended to Earth and found herself, somehow, in the self-help section of a bookstore, she might deduce that we’ve clearly got an obsession with happiness.
Among the titles that might catch her eye: The Art of Happiness. The Happiness Project. The How of Happiness. Authentic Happiness — the list goes on. And on. Why, she’d wonder, are Earthlings so preoccupied with this concept?
If she were shrewd, the alien might also notice that none of the books were published before the late ’90s. That’s because our cultural fixation on happiness can be traced back to Martin Seligman, a psychologist who in 1998 became president of the American Psychological Association. It was at this post that he popularized the positive psychology movement, which shifted focus from negative thinking and mental illness to happiness, well-being, and positivity.
For self-help writers, the topic of happiness is fertile ground. It’s loosely defined, and no matter how rich or fulfilling our lives, it seems we could always be happier. For those of us obsessed with self-improvement, happiness is the elusive final frontier.
But when it comes to running a business, so much of the conventional wisdom around happiness isn’t just impractical; it can actually be detrimental. Here’s why.
The problem with positive thinking
How many times has someone told you to “just think positively”? In a rebuttal to Seligman’s philosophy of positive psychology, the journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich argued in her book, Bright-Sided, that while delusional optimism can be a “liberating ideology for top-level executives,” it’s also a destructive one.
“What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks — and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults — when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?” she writes.
The extension of this is that if you maintain a sunny enough outlook, success is inevitable. As Ehrenreich puts it: “The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.”
Nice though it would be, positive thinking alone will not have a direct effect on the physical world. Founders cannot will their companies into existence on hope and cheer. In fact, it’s often negativity that ultimately drives us to action and forces us to do our best. Such was the conclusion reached by psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Canton, who came up with the term “defensive pessimism:” The idea that people use their anxiety to picture everything that can go wrong, and prepare appropriately.
“At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,” Norem writes in her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism…negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.”
Assuming everything will simply go your way is not only naive, but will leave you blindsided, hurt and angry when it doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that when it comes to new ventures, highly optimistic entrepreneurs bring in less revenue and grow more slowly than their more pessimistic counterparts, and optimistic CEOs are more willing to imperil their businesses with risky bets.
Obsessing over happiness
If you’re constantly checking in on your own happiness, research shows that you’re probably doing more harm than good.
For example, in study from 2011 co-authored by social psychologist Iris Mauss, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements like, “I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness” and “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy.” The authors found that those who scored highly tended to be less satisfied with their daily lives and were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms. Since then, the same conclusion has been reached by researchers time and time again.
Moreover, obsessively monitoring your mood actually prevents you from enjoying the pleasures of daily life. Using the responses from Mauss’s study, the University of Reading’s Dr. Bahram Mahmoodi Kahriz and Dr. Julia Vogt found that those who scored higher on the questionnaire have such a high standard of happiness that they neglect to appreciate the small and simple things that bring meaning to their lives.
When you’re running a company, it tends to be the big moments that are celebrated, like netting a major new client or raising a round of VC funding. But those wins are considered “major” for a reason, and they don’t happen every day. For me, my goal with my company, JotForm, has never been to land at the top of TechCrunch or get accepted into Y Combinator. As a bootstrapped founder, I scaled slowly and intentionally, growing JotForm into a company that now has 9.1 million users.
If I lived only for the major, newsworthy milestones, I’d be miserable. But celebrating small wins builds momentum — for example, our teams will often take on a new feature or product on Monday, and showcase what they’ve created on Friday demo days. For me, savoring these incremental victories is much more satisfying than living for a huge rush of happiness that may never come.
The value of emodiversity
If you believe the self-help books, our goal as humans is to achieve a constant state of bliss. And yet, one study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, holds that emodiversity — the variety and relative abundance of the emotions that humans experience — is an essential indicator of mental and physical health.
Basically, the authors write, experiencing a rich palette of feelings — from amusement to anger, gratitude to guilt — makes people more emotionally complex. As a result, “emodiversity may prevent specific emotions — in particular detrimental ones such as acute stress, anger, or sadness — from dominating the emotional ecosystem.”
If you’re constantly avoiding situations that may result in negative emotions, one setback or bad day can be crushing. Being emotionally complex means that two or more feelings can work together to produce results that one feeling alone can’t. For example, prolonged sadness may lead to depression, but sadness and anger — though unpleasant — may prevent people from withdrawing completely.
Launching a business is a roller coaster — one moment you’re up, and the next, you’re down. That fear you feel isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s what will spur you to create the absolute best product you can. Embarrassed by a botched rollout? Good — you’ll learn from the experience and do it better next time. “Affirmation feels good,” writes Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human. “But it doesn’t prompt you to summon the resources and strategies to actually accomplish the task.” As an entrepreneur, being accustomed to a range of emotions equips you to appreciate the good days and weather the bad, and accept that inevitably, you will have both.