Research Finds Countries That Focus the Most on Happiness Can End Up Making People Feel Worse

Have you recently checked out the international rankings of the happiest countries on the planet? Measuring a country’s subjective happiness levels has become a sport on a global scale. People are fascinated (and a little envious) of countries like Denmark, which constantly ranks first in the world happiness rankings.

It has also resulted in the spread of Danish habits such as the “hygge” lifestyle. Perhaps if we could just add a little more coziness to our lives, we’d be as content as the Danes! Is living in one of the happiest countries in the world everything it’s cracked up to be? What if you’re trying to find or keep happiness among a sea of (ostensibly) cheerful people?

People in countries that rank highest in national happiness are also more likely to feel low well-being due to societal pressure to be cheerful, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports. As a result, many people may benefit from living in happy countries. However, for some, it may feel like too much to live up to, resulting in the opposite consequence.

My colleagues and I have been studying the societal pressure people may feel to experience good emotions while avoiding negative ones for several years. We are also exposed to this pressure through media such as social media, self-help books, and advertising. People eventually gain an understanding of what kinds of emotions are valued (or not) by those around them.

In an odd twist, our previous study has found that the more people are pressured to be cheerful rather than unhappy, the more likely they are to be depressed. While past research has primarily focused on persons in Australia and the United States, we were interested in seeing how similar impacts may manifest in other nations.

We polled 7,443 adults from 40 nations about their emotional well-being, life satisfaction (cognitive well-being), and mood complaints for our most recent study (clinical well-being). We then compared this to their perceptions of social pressure to be happy. What we discovered backed up our earlier findings. When people report feeling pressured to be happy and avoid melancholy, they are more likely to have mental health problems.

That is, they are less satisfied with their life, have more negative feeling, less positive emotion, and are more depressed, anxious, and stressed. Our worldwide sample allowed us to go beyond our previous research and see if there were any variances in this link between countries. Are there any countries where this bond is particularly strong? And if that’s the case, why is that?