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Pressure to be happy puts psychological well-being at risk

Published: 18th February 2022 Last updated: 18th February 2022

The societal pressure to pursue happiness ironically seems to have adverse effects on people's psychological well-being. Especially in countries that score high on the World Happiness Index (WHI), there is a strong link between the feeling of needing to be happy and the extent to which people actually experience feelings such as sadness, gloom, fatigue or anxiety. A more balanced social discourse, focusing on negative emotions and their value, can help reduce the stigma surrounding negative emotions.

This is shown in cross-cultural research by Egon Dejonckheere (Medical and Clinical Psychology), into the extent to which perceived societal pressure to be happy is related to psychological well-being. To this end, over 7,400 participants were surveyed in 40 countries worldwide. On average, greater perceived pressure predicts decreased psychological well-being. People who experience more pressure are generally less satisfied with their lives, feel fewer positive emotions, and are more likely to be gloomy, anxious, or fatigued.

This relationship is not equally strong in all countries. An important predictor of the strength of these links is the World Happiness Index released annually by the United Nations. People from countries that score high on the WHI suffer much more from the pressure to be happy. In the Netherlands (place 5 in the 2021 WHI), the relationship between the pressure to be happy and psychological well-being for most indicators is about twice as strong as, say, Uganda or Ukraine (places 119 and 110 in the 2021 WHI).

Egon Dejonckheere

Egon Dejonckheere: "Our research shows that cultural factors do play an important role in our well-being. In very happy countries the social pressure to be happy plays a role in all areas of life: work, social relationships and in mental and physical health. 'The pursuit of happiness' prevails everywhere, on social media, in self-help books and in advertisements. Because you only see seemingly happy people, it is extra conspicuous if you deviate from the happiness norm. As a result, people who don't meet the standard can have a more negative self-image and feel even worse. Negative emotions often seem unacceptable. There is still a stigma on sadness, grief, and fear. Policy makers should strive for a more balanced social discourse. For example, with campaigns aimed at removing the stigma of negative emotions and emphasizing the usefulness and value of these feelings, because they do have that."

Note for the press

Egon Dejonckheere is an Associate Professor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, effective February 1, 2022. He is also affiliated with the Department of Quantitative Psychology and Individual Differences at KU Leuven with funding from the Fund Scientific Research.

The paper titled Perceiving societal pressure to be happy is linked to poor well-being, especially in happy nations is available for download via https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-04262-z

For more information, contact Press Office Tilburg University at 013-466 26 85 or f.j.trommels@tilburguniversity.edu