One of the most fascinating economic theories I learned during my undergrad degree was the theory of 'negative marginal returns'. The example we used in class was that if you are hungry and you eat a banana, you will feel saturation. But once you eat your 10th consecutive banana, that saturation might turn into stomach ache. So there is a point at which each additional unit will not cause a positive return (saturation) but a negative return (stomach pain).
As I have been thinking and theorizing about the topic of happiness over the past months and years, I have always wondered if there is such a negative marginal return on happiness as well. If you are unhappy and something good happens to you, you then – ideally – feel happier. But what if so many (too many?) good things happen to you that with each additional positive experience you make, your happiness doesn't increase, but decreases? Is there such thing as a maximum point of happiness that should ideally not be exceeded because it might lead to unhappiness? Surprisingly, these recent thoughts reminded me of a post I once made on Facebook.
I was complimented today for being happy. That made me even happier. Now I’m in a vicious circle of happiness.
Back then, I called it a "vicious cycle of happiness". While this was all meant as a joke, the word vicious does indeed have a negative connotation. This only reminded me again of the possibility that there is a maximum point of happiness that should not be surpassed. You might now wonder how the heck someone could be too happy? Well, allow me to share one of my own stories which has made me reflect and look into this topic.
I have always considered myself very fortunate for this life that I'm living. I have had a lot of great opportunities and a lot of good things happened to me along the way (*knockonwood*). At the same time, I have often asked myself the simple question "Why me?". I hear about other people's suffering, pain, loss and dilemmas and I wonder how some live lives of joy while others have to go through difficult times.
It was a few months ago when I was in New York to run the marathon. It was the weekend before the race and all my college friends were in town to do a little reunion weekend. They flew in from the farthest places just for us to be together. We joked, we dined, we partied, we chatted, ... it was the perfect weekend and I was incredibly happy to be spending time with them. The weekend had come to an end and I was sitting in the subway heading home after a stroll through the city by myself when this daunting feeling of took over. I felt that things were just too good to be true. Not that I wouldn't believe the goodness, but that I would start to feel bad for it. Out of a sudden, I felt guilt, not happiness, for all the good things in my life. That was the first time I realized that there might be a limit to happiness. I don't know if there is any science to it or if I'm just an outlier here, but it was an important realization that I made that day.
While this feeling has come up quite a few times ever since, I have learned how to cope with it. Every time this feeling of guilt comes up, I try to convert it into a feeling of responsibility. I have come to believe that people with opportunities, people who are capable of experiencing deep and profound joy, people who have the means to achieve great things, that these people also have the responsibility – if not even obligation – to fully maximize these opportunities and to contribute to the world they are part of. There are so many people out there that suffer from depression and so many others who are poverty-stricken or subject to other afflications. If you are one of the lucky ones who is employed, has access to education, a roof on top of your head and a somewhat unworried life (yes, everyone has his/her struggles, but let's put our #firstworldproblems aside), then you, too, have the responsibility to make this world a better place for those who are not that lucky.
Coming back to the initial idea of this post, I wonder if there is any scientific evidence for such a negative return on happiness. In my case it was a sense of guilt. Others might experience a different range of emotions as a result of excessive joy and happiness. I look forward to learning and sharing more about this topic with you.