Editor’s note: Monica C. Parker is an expert on the future of work and the founder of global human analytics and change consultancy HATCH Analytics. She has been an opera singer, a museum exhibition designer and a homicide investigator defending death row inmates. She is the author of “The Power of Wonder: The Extraordinary Emotion That Will Change the Way You Live, Learn, and Lead.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Headlines bellow with the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis, climate catastrophe and yet another mass shooting. It feels tone-deaf, almost absurd really, to encourage people to be happy. And yet, we live in a world obsessed with happiness.
Between chief happiness officers, the Happy Planet Index, Gross National Happiness, and the World Happiness Report (Finland scored the highest again this year), it seems as though happiness has some good PR. And let’s not forget Madison Avenue marketers — brands, and anyone associated with selling those brands — want to be involved with happiness, too. Throughout modern history, and with little contesting, happiness has been seen as the end goal and just reward for a life of laudable toil.
Before the ancient Greek philosophers, happiness, like most things in life, was seen as a benefaction granted by the gods. (The English word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic root happ or “luck,” so at least etymologically, luck seems to have always played some role in our happiness.) It was the great iconoclast Socrates who became the first to suggest that happiness was a cognitive and meaning-making pursuit, something in a person’s control, rather than simply a gift bestowed by the gods. And now, the positive thinking movement, abundance theory and any other number of self-help genres see some form of happiness as the primary objective and something we can achieve if we just try hard enough.
It’s an unfortunate irony then that in a world fixated on happiness, people are so chronically unhappy. There are 280 million people with depression globally, according to the World Health Organization, and in the United States alone, 40 million people are suffering from anxiety, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. It’s a further tragic irony that we are so bad at knowing what will make us happy. This phenomenon of misjudging what will make us happy is called affective forecasting, and as humans, we “miswant” a lot of things that we have been conditioned to believe will make us happier than they actually do. How often have we felt a certain kind of deflation after that big purchase or much-anticipated night out when it didn’t live up to our expectations?
Between self-help gurus, philosophers and marketers all telling us how to be happy, it’s easy to get confounded. How do we achieve happiness? As captivating as it is, that question isn’t the right one. This one is: What if we’re so fixated on happiness that we’ve failed to question whether happiness is what we should be pursuing? What if, after two millenniums of debating the relative benefits of varying types of happiness, we could focus on another, more enduring, more impactful emotional state that will bring us both happiness and more significant benefits? Simply put, it feels like we are on a racetrack, chasing the wrong rabbit.
Why not pursue wonder? Each of us has experienced wonder. It’s as universal an emotion as happiness and fear. Everyone knows the goosebumpy feeling we get viewing a grand vista or seeing children take their first steps. It’s an experience that makes us feel like a small part of a bigger system, and that, in turn, makes our problems seem smaller, too. Still, we all too often seek the comfort of simple positive emotions such as happiness rather than sit in the discomfort of negative or mixed emotions, even though they contribute to more profound well-being.
We resist negative emotions such as sadness or fear at our peril. Psychologist and philosopher Kirk Schneider refers to happiness as “potential fool’s gold,” believing the “compulsion to think positively” (i.e., toxic positivity) is equally as bad as the “compulsion to think negatively” and can actually block us from experiencing the “wonder-amazement of living.” Embracing negative emotions not only adds to the richness of our human experience, but negative emotions are also a way to broaden our emotional vocabulary, which helps us call up a greater variety of coping skills. In fact, research shows that people with higher emotional granularity, or emodiversity, use more positive coping mechanisms and recover more quickly from stress.
Even better than embracing your negative emotions is embracing both positive and negative emotions at the same time. Holding two seemingly opposable emotional forces in your mind simultaneously, also called co-activation, is a powerful coping mechanism that increases our sense of meaning and gratitude in the face of adversity. While emotions such as happiness are known as “positively valenced” and emotions such as sadness are “negatively valenced,” some emotions like bittersweetness, sympathy, nostalgia and wonder are mixed or “dually valenced” emotions.
Paradoxically, this tendency toward feeling just positive purely or negative emotions is further exacerbated when we are stressed, precisely when we could most benefit from the ameliorating effects of mixed emotions. The thinking is that our emotions sit on a continuum from simple to complex. Under stress, we lean on our mental shortcuts, defaulting to simple emotions such as “happy” or “sad” instead of embracing the multidimensionality of a complex emotion such as wonder. These types of complex emotions make us more resilient. In essence, by holding both positive and negative thoughts in our mind simultaneously, we can better metabolize traumatic experiences and make meaning of them.
In one study of bereaved spouses, those widows and widowers who recalled both positive and negative elements of their deceased spouses were better able to manage their grief. Author Susan Cain, who wrote a bestselling book on the emotion of bittersweetness, described mixed emotions as being “some of the most sublime aspects of being human, and they happen to be connected to our appreciation of how fragile life can be, and the impermanence of life.”
I have experienced this dynamic myself. I vividly recall being a student in Miami, huddling under a mattress with my roommates for what was, at the time, the worst hurricane in history. The aftermath of Hurricane Andrew was utter chaos — street signs bent to right angles, trees whose roots were torn from the ground, towering stories high. I felt certain it was the worst I could witness. That was, of course, until Hurricane Katrina when my family had to evacuate New Orleans.
What an unparalleled sense of helplessness, watching our beautiful city’s slow descent into a watery wasteland, all on prime-time TV. In both instances, it was impossible to be happy given the destruction, the loss. But part and parcel of my grief was my sense of wonder. Curious about how we would rebuild, in awe of the brutish impassivity of the storm but also in awe of the sacrifice of the first responders. And that sense of wonder granted me the resilience to heal and to hope.
Thankfully we don’t have to live through a natural disaster to see the benefit of wonder over happiness. Consider celebrating a milestone birthday. It’s natural to be happy reflecting on our life’s accomplishments, pleased to be alive. But if we were to view that experience through a wonder lens — reflecting in an openly curious way on the challenges we had, the mistakes we made, our regrets, and in awe of the impermanence of life — that experience becomes not only richer but an opportunity for greater personal growth.
And wonder doesn’t just bestow resilience. In fact, in side-by-side comparisons by researchers, wonder’s quantum benefits are greater than that of happiness. Wonder makes us more creative and more desirous of studying the world around us. It makes us humble, less materialistic, more generous and better community members. Wonder-prone people are more likely to perform better in school and work and build healthier relationships. Wonder makes us less stressed and feel like we have more time. A very prosocial emotional experience, wonder quite simply makes us want to be better, more tolerant people.
If those aren’t reasons enough to motivate us toward more wonder, the physiological benefits are particularly compelling. Researchers have found a link between people who experience wonder and lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones and decreased pro-inflammatory cytokines, the latter of which are the markers associated with a number of diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. These links suggest a direct “biological pathway” between wonder and better health.
The world, the people in it, and our experiences are not binary or easily defined. Two things can coexist in opposition to each other, and both can be true at the same time. Wonder embraces life’s beautiful, messy complexity in a way happiness doesn’t. It allows for nuance and depth. It allows for the reality of a simultaneously sucky and sublime existence. That uncomfortable balancing coexistence feels more true to me than a manufactured cajoling toward happiness.