The Declaration of Independence guaranteed Americans the right to pursue happiness, and we haven’t stopped looking for it since. But despite the college courses, research labs and countless self-help books dedicated to that search, only 33% of Americans actually said they were happy in a 2017 survey. A new research may help explain why: We’re trying too hard.
The research, published in the journal Emotion, found that overemphasizing happiness can make people more likely to obsess over failure and negative emotions when they inevitably do happen, bringing them more stress in the long run.
“Happiness is a good thing, but setting it up as something to be achieved tends to fail,” explains co-author Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, in an email to TIME. “Our work shows that it changes how people respond to their negative emotions and experiences, leading them to feel worse about these and to ruminate on them more.”
“When people place a great deal of pressure on themselves to feel happy, or think that others around them do, they are more likely to see their negative emotions and experiences as signals of failure,” Bastian says. “This will only drive more unhappiness.”
Bastian says the study isn’t a condemnation of trying to be happy; rather, it underscores the importance of knowing and accepting that feeling unhappy sometimes is just as normal and healthy.
“The danger of feeling that we should avoid our negative experiences is that we respond to them badly when they do arise,” Bastian says. “We have evolved to experience a complex array of emotional states, and about half of these are unpleasant. This is not to say they are less valuable, or that having them detracts from our quality of life.”
In fact, recent research has suggested that experiencing negative emotions can ultimately boost happiness, and another new study finds that stressful or unpleasant situations may help people process bad news. Bastian also adds that failure can be invaluable for learning and growth.
“Failure is critical to innovation, learning and progress,” he says. “Every successful organization knows that failure is part of the road to success, so we need to know how to respond well to failure.” Doing so will likely take a culture change. A society that embraces messy emotions and experiences, Bastian says, is one that is poised for better mental health.