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 Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM’s Channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: Does it signal anything about our culture as it is right now? Go back a decade in the United States, and it was not a happy time for a lot of people because of the recession.

“Maybe American-level happiness might strike others as very naive.”

Schweitzer: What I would say is that there are always things in the news, even when our economy is going well, that might bring us down. Yet Americans as a whole are relatively optimistic. As I mentioned before, this idea of the pursuit of happiness is deeply embedded in our thinking. Americans tend to be upbeat, optimistic and happy. That baseline is what we’re comparing our results to — that ordinary happiness is fine and what’s expected. When you see somebody who just has neutral affect, they look down and depressed.

Knowledge at Wharton: Maybe they don’t realize it, but from the research that you did are happy people at a disadvantage right now?

Schweitzer: Absolutely. We found that the people who exude this sort of great happiness may be highly motivated, they may be very happy themselves, and they may be successful, but they’re also more likely to be targets of exploitation. Other people sort of scanning the environment will look at these people and, if they have a conflict of interest, they’re more likely to exploit this very happy person. If they’re looking for a negotiation partner that they might deceive, they want the very happy person. They see this very happy person as more gullible, and they actually act on it and give that person worse information.

Knowledge at Wharton: Does the happy person [tend to] realize the deception in the end, and is there more conflict because of it?

Schweitzer: That’s a great question. In our studies, we really just looked at the first pathway. What we haven’t done is look very systematically at how these people operate and react…. What we haven’t looked at are these downstream consequences [regarding whether] this creates conflict? Does this end up dampening the very happy people when they figure out, “Hey, being very happy has some down sides that I want to sort of ease off.”

Knowledge at Wharton: It sounds like happy people are not able to recognize when this potential trouble is coming their way.

Schweitzer: We didn’t anticipate this effect being so robust, and we don’t have any evidence that the people anticipate this, that people understand that there’s a cost to being very happy. The broader literature hasn’t identified many disadvantages to being very happy. In general, happiness is good. In fact, happiness is often the goal, but expressing very high levels of happiness can have some down sides. And I think that’s very important to note.

Knowledge at Wharton: Did your research look at people who are in a significantly large corporate environment, compared with a smaller business setting where there are more familial relationships in the office?

Schweitzer: You’re raising something really important: The assumptions we make about other people based on the emotions they’re expressing are particularly important for people we don’t know well. The first impressions that you make, or people that you interact with just casually in an organization — those could still be important relationships. But they’re very different from the more intimate, deeper ties with people we see all the time. There, the inferences we’re going to make are not going to be based on as many superficial cues as they are how well we actually know someone. You see your sibling or parent and they’re extremely happy, but you still have an enormous amount of experience to draw on that’s going to inform what you really think that they’re doing. What we found is that once you know somebody, that overwhelms the quick inferences you’re making based upon how they look.

“As leaders, we need to … 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.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Could this research have an impact on team-building ideas and philosophies that a lot of C-suites are looking for now?

Schweitzer: Yes, there are huge advantages once you have small teams. If you can build small teams, you’re likely to deepen trust, you’re going to have better collaboration, and you’re going to be inoculated to some of the vagaries of things just like this — that is, the sort of quick inferences we’re going to make based upon how somebody’s expressing their feelings. You’re going to have a much more robust system so that when bumps come along and somebody gets promoted and somebody else doesn’t get promoted, when you have an unequal distribution of the workload, what you’re going to find is that in smaller teams that have deep ties and deep trust, they’re going to be able to weather these storms better than people that have much looser ties and know each other less well.

Knowledge at Wharton: For the people who are happy and are taken advantage of once or twice, they will end up being more adaptable. Do you see that some of that happiness is taken away from them over time?

Schweitzer: Being happy makes us more robust. That is, we can actually weather some adverse events, bad news, bad outcomes. And being happy is very functional. What I’m suggesting is that degree matters. Some happiness is very good. Extreme happiness has some downsides the ways people perceive us. Another key idea in our work is that a lot of scholars have been relatively insensitive to the magnitude of different emotions. We intuitively know that ecstasy is different from bliss, different from happiness. But we haven’t carefully looked at that. In our research, we were able to very carefully measure different levels of happiness and found that there’s a curvilinear relationship here.

There are many cases where we do want to dial down happiness. For example, when delivering bad news, or when in a negotiation somebody makes you an offer, you don’t want to be too happy in your reaction to that. They are cases where expressing less happiness can be beneficial, and I think it’s worth understanding that some of us with high emotional intelligence will be more adaptable and send off the right signals, [whereas] some others of us might be just wearing our hearts on our sleeves. The outcomes we get and the way we’re treated by other people may not be as good.