If You’re Happy and You Know It, Watch Your Back

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Research suggests extremely happy people are seen as naive and ripe for exploitation.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Arno Burgi/AFP/Getty Images)

Have you been feeling less than elated lately? Are you finding it difficult to access your typically bright, bubbly self?

Be grateful. Newly published research suggests there is a serious downside to feeling and conveying extreme levels of contentment and joy.

“Very happy individuals are perceived to be more naive than moderately happy individuals,”

write New York University’s Alixandra Barasch, the University of Chicago’s Emma E. Levine, and the Wharton School’s Maurice E. Schweitzer. “As a result, very happy individuals are more likely to be targets of exploitation.”

Writing in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the researchers note that a cheerful disposition has been linked to many positive outcomes, including better health. But they argue that such research fails to distinguish between moderate and extreme happiness.

Over the course of six studies, they provide evidence that we view very happy individuals differently than reasonably happy ones, and these assumptions influence our interactions with them.

Their first study featured 390 university students, each of whom was given the results of a survey and asked to evaluate the person who had filled it out. It included two questions in which the person indicated (in writing and via emoticon) how happy they typically feel.

Afterwards, participants assessed how likely it was that the person was naive, gullible, ignorant, and generally unaware.

“Individuals who display high levels of happiness are perceive to be more naive than individuals who display moderate levels of happiness,” the researchers report. “We observe this pattern of results using both male and female targets.”

After replicating these results in three additional studies, the researchers turned to the negative consequences of this belief.

In one study, “participants were randomly assigned to give advice to a happy or very happy partner regarding the amount of money in five different jars of coins,” the research team writes. “Participants had a conflict of interest, such that they would receive a bonus if their partner guessed an amount higher than the actual amount of money in each jar.”

As expected, the participants — 115 adults recruited online — tended to give self-serving advice, deliberately overstating the amount of money in the jar.

“However,” the researchers add, “ participants gave significantly more biased advice to their partners in the ‘very happy’ condition than those in the ‘happy’ condition.” It seems they evaluated the very happy people as naive, and felt they could get away with suggesting a quite high number “while still appearing credible.”

A final study confirmed this dynamic, finding that “very happy targets are selected as partners for competitive negotiations, because they are perceived to be more naive and easier to exploit.”

So, if recent events have dampened your inherent sunniness, perhaps that’s a good thing. “Don’t worry, be happy” may be fine advice, but only to a point. If you come across as very happy, you may, in fact, have reason to worry.