The pressure from society, including via social media and magazines, to feel happy is linked to poorer individual wellbeing in happier countries, a new study suggests.
According to the research, overly emphasising positivity may create an unattainable emotional norm.
In the study, 7,443 people from 40 countries were questioned on their emotional wellbeing, satisfaction with life (cognitive wellbeing) and mood complaints (clinical wellbeing).
They were also asked to report their perception of societal expectancies to feel positive.
The study found that societal pressure to be happy was reported across almost all countries and was significantly associated with citizens reporting poor wellbeing – but there were differences when comparing countries.
Poor wellbeing included reduced life satisfaction, experiencing fewer and less intense positive emotions and more symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.
The level of happiness individuals feel pressured to achieve may be unattainable and reveal differences between an individual’s emotional life and the emotions society approves of
Egon Dejonckheere, Tilburg University
The message that happiness is an important life goal is expressed at many different levels in society, the study suggests.
For example, the prominence of happiness is demonstrated by numerous happiness coaches, campaigns and self-help books that provide tips and tricks to cultivate a most positive mindset.
More subtly the message is conveyed by the seemingly perfect lives of influencers on social media, and presence of smiling faces and happiness allusions in television adverts and magazines.
According to the scientists, this one-sided social emphasis on happiness risks planting the idea that there is little room for negativity.
Researchers found the relationship between societal pressure to be happy and poor wellbeing was almost twice as strong in countries with higher World Happiness Index scores than in countries with lower national happiness scores.
In the 2016-2018 index the UK ranked 15th for happiness out of 156 countries.
Lead author Egon Dejonckheere, from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said: “The level of happiness individuals feel pressured to achieve may be unattainable and reveal differences between an individual’s emotional life and the emotions society approves of.
“This discrepancy between an individual and society may create a perceived failure that can trigger negative emotions.
“In countries where all citizens appear to be happy, deviations from the expected norm are likely more apparent, which makes it more distressing.”
– The findings are published in Scientific Reports.