Misconceptions about happiness: “Seeking for happiness might even backfire”
How to be happier in 2019? Switching jobs? Buying a new car? Following the advice of that self-help book you got for Christmas? What makes us truly happy?
Some people see happiness as a momentary feeling after their favourite meal. Others see it as a state of mind. When talking about happiness people tend to deviate in their definition. Many of these public understandings about happiness contradict from science. This article debunks three widely spread misconceptions on happiness and what you can do about them.
Happiness is not a choice trap
We are not completely in control regarding our level of happiness. In fact, this video shows that researchers argue that up to 50% of happiness can be linked to our genes. Often, we think that major events such as a marriage or buying a new house significantly improve our life situation. Part of the problem is that humans tend to quickly return to what psychologist call the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Meaning that each person has a general ‘average level’ of happiness concluding that happiness is as much about personality and genetic factors as it is about good things happening in your life.
The self-help book epidemic
There are millions of self-help books out there claiming to have the secret answer about becoming successful and happy in life. Consider the best-seller, You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, by Richard Carlson (1997). Do the five principles work and make people happier? How long are the effects? What is missing in this book and many others is the empirically evidence. Contradictorily research tells us that radically seeking for happiness could even backfire. In a study, participants read two articles, one describing the benefits of seeking happiness, before watching a film clip. The participants who tried to maximize their happiness felt worse, in comparison to the control group after watching the film clip. As the study shows, expecting to become suddenly happier can lead to feelings of disappointment and self-blame. The findings suggest that a mindset to maximize happiness (which self-help books tend to promote) can be counterproductive. Learning to accept the full range of emotions – including negative ones – is therefore advisable to reach sustainable happiness.
The money = happiness pitfall
Money increases our happiness – but only up to a certain point. It enables a quality of life and ability to buy high-quality goods. There is a point when money won’t add much to your level of happiness. The Nobel prize-winning duo of economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman found this so-called ‘satiation point’ for the US household at about $75.000. Although financial welfare does play a role, other factors like social relationship and good health are better indicators for sustained happiness.
So what makes us happier?
Self-appointed gurus and the massive happiness industry selling happiness as something achievable.This leaves people with unhealthy expectations towards themselves, believing they are fully in charge for their own level of happiness. Recognizing these misconceptions can signal relevant warnings and prevent oneself from self-doubts and unmet aspirations.
The good news is that practicing certain virtues can improve your level of happiness. It is about changing your behavior. An important aspect is to understand what brings positive moments to your life and change your behavior accordingly, says Barbara Fredriksson, a leading scholar in happiness research. In the past years, research has done a great contribution to identify practices that improve optimism and positive emotions. The two tips at the end of this article will help you on your way.
Tip 1: Forgiving
Thinking about the last divorce and ex-partner can be quite horrifying. Often it ended in betrayal and lying, not seldom leaving the ex-partners with bitterness and wounds. These intense negative thoughts about the past can block the emotions of satisfaction. Forgiving transforms bitterness into positive emotions, and so makes greater life satisfaction possible. It is not my place to argue with you about what weight to forgive a person who hurt you. But it is worthwhile to reconcile these negative feeling as it can have a significant effect on your life satisfaction. This 9-step exercise is a great starting point to practice forgiveness in 2019.
Tip 2: Gratitude
Gratitude works to improve your life satisfaction because it increases good memories of the past; their intensity and frequency. A very simple way to practice your gratitude is by keeping a journal. Record five things you experienced in the past week for which you are grateful. The entries are supposed to be brief—just a single sentence—and they range from very basics ‘waking up this morning’ to more specific parts ‘I appreciated my mom’s call yesterday’. An advanced version of the journal is to write every day a few sentences down about moments or people you are grateful for. Try it for a couple of weeks and you will notice an increase in positive thoughts.