What are the happiness myths that make people miserable? How can positive psychology, the science of happiness, help you overturn these myths?
One of the most persistent myths about happiness is that people think you must be smiling, laughing, or doing something upbeat if you are happy.
You don’t have to look obviously happy to be actually happy. Because any sad person can hide their pain with a smiling face.
Happiness isn’t always a smile; a smile doesn’t always belong to a happy person.
What is the most common happiness myth?
“Someday, I’ll be happy and then I’ll never be unhappy again.”– The Mythical Happiness Idea
A common happiness myth is that, once our food, shelter, and intimacy needs are met, we can get lasting happiness by having wealth, status, or possessions. But studies show good circumstances do not sustain high happiness. All emotions are essential human experiences and no happiness can last forever.
Humans experience a psychological effect called the “hedonic treadmill.”
Also called “hedonic adaptation,” it means that people quickly get used to their improved circumstances and return to their baseline level of happiness, and start to feel neutral or even slightly negative about them again.
The 10 Happiness Myths That Make People Miserable
Here are the 10 happiness myths that make people miserable:
1. Myth: Happiness is a constant state.
Truth: No Sirs and Ma’ams, happiness is not a constant state. You cannot extend forever the emotions you feel on your best days.
It’s normal to experience a range of emotions in response to life’s ups and downs. It’s human to feel many “unhappy” emotions, like sadness, anger, and frustration, in between happy experiences.
The first happiness myth that makes us miserable is the belief that once we unlock the secret to happiness, we can keep feeling happy forever.
Happiness is actually a fluctuating state that can change based on your mood, thoughts, and experiences.
Happiness is a fleeting experience for a reason: if our ancestors were always in a happy mood, they would have probably ignored the dangers of predators lurking nearby.
So, by evolution, all human emotions are natural. Our moments of joy, contentment, and satisfaction balance our moments of sadness, disappointment, and frustration.
- Don’t think that once the happiness butterfly settles on you, it will stay with you forever.
- You will never find happiness that stays at the same level forever. Life is designed that way.
Relatedly, the belief that we should always be happy and positive is a myth.
The marketing industry has made us believe that being unhappy is a personal failure, but this is not true. When you expect to stay happy all the time, any little dissatisfaction can make you feel inadequate.
2. Myth: Happiness depends on circumstances.
Truth: Happiness is not solely dependent on external circumstances.
Many people believe how much happy we depend on how good are our external factors such as wealth, fame, or success.
While external factors can bring temporary pleasure, true happiness comes from within.
In fact, according to The Happiness Formula, only 10% of your total happiness depends on your circumstances.
Your happiness depends more on things within you, like your mindset and your biases.
- You can cultivate a positive mindset through practices like mindfulness and self-care.
- You can learn to recognize your biases and avoid them to make better decisions.
3. Myth: Money can buy happiness.
Truth: Money can actually buy happiness, but about 10% of it.
Money brings temporary pleasure and lifts us out of poverty-induced misery, but it doesn’t play a big role beyond a certain income level.
- We are often led to believe that once we get rich, we will never have to worry about being sad again.
- We are taught that if we had enough money, all our issues would get fixed and we would be happy for the rest of our lives.
The same amount of money spent on a thing versus an experience can give you different lengths of happiness.
- The item you bought gathers dust on your shelf and your happiness for it grows less intense.
- The trip you took grows fond memories and makes you feel good seeing those pictures again.
Spike Mulligan, the British comedian, once said, “All I want is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Many of us would smile approvingly at that.
But research has shown that once our basic needs are met, additional wealth does not lead to any significant increase in our overall happiness.
To know more about it, read this: Psychology of “Happy Money”: How Can Your Money Buy Happiness?
4. Myth: Happiness is getting rid of negative emotions.
Truth: Happiness is not merely an absence of negative emotions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as follows:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.— WHO
You may not have any illnesses, but it does not automatically mean you are completely healthy. It’s the same with happiness and mental well-being.
“Why look sad? Why can’t you just smile? Try smiling and see how it makes you happy.”— Wrong Advice
People may believe that happiness is the absence of negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. But it’s not so.
Our negative emotions have intrinsic value; we do need them.
True happiness is more than just material possessions. It includes our challenges, times with friends and family, and our ikigai (reason for existence).
Happiness is having fewer negative emotions and more positive ones, but it’s not healthy to suppress your negative emotions.
Moreover, it is not possible to eliminate negative emotions entirely.
- You may express your happiness with both a pleasant surprise and a contented sigh. It can even show up as tears.
- Happiness is not one-dimensional. Quiet joy, serene contentment, and boisterous excitement, all contribute to our overall well-being.
- Happiness can be sitting on an iron bench, watching the clouds go by, and feeling the breeze on your face. It can also mean being so deeply immersed in a task that you lose track of time.
5. Myth: Happiness is only for special people.
Truth: Happiness is not just for special people.
No matter what anybody tells you, happiness is not just for like the lucky or the wealthy ones among us.
Happiness is a universal human experience that is available to everyone, not just special people.
More surprise: The common belief that poor people are unhappy by definition is wrong.
- In fact, this study found that people living in slums have greater levels of life satisfaction than we might expect, given their poverty and circumstances (Sulkers & Loos, 2022).
- Similarly, in a study among the poorest of the poor in South Africa, researchers found that landfill waste pickers scored higher on life satisfaction than the national average (Blaauw et al., 2020).
Some people may have a natural disposition towards happiness, but it is a state that can be cultivated and nurtured through various means.
6. Myth: Happiness is for those who know how to be “happy.”
Truth: Happiness is not just for those who are “happier” types and know how to be “happy.”
Even those who have difficulty expressing happiness, showing positive feelings exuberantly, or appearing plainly cheerful and hopeful can be joyful.
Happiness can be found through, among other things, gratitude, forgiveness, good memories, the “flow” of being immersed in an activity, and having a feeling of purpose in life.
Even people with depression, who have low hopes for the future and often overthink, can feel happier through interventions like The Three Good Things.
Some people are terrified of being happy; this is called cherophobia. Even these people can find help in shifting their perspective and letting themselves be happy.
Happiness-boosting activities can help almost anyone to be happy, even if they are not too good at expressing it or finding it in their daily lives.
7. Myth: Happiness is only for the present moment.
Truth: Happiness is not just for the present moment.
Some people say, “If you aren’t happy about this thing now, you can never be happy about it.”
Those people are wrong.
Although being in the present moment, that is, being mindful, can make us happier, it doesn’t mean that happiness is only for the present moment.
You can feel satisfied with things you did or happened in the past. You can also feel happy, hopeful, and optimistic for good things to happen.
We need happiness from both feeling content with past experiences (“I lived a good life.”) as well as having a sense of purpose for the future (“I’m upbeat about my future.”).
A related happiness myth is that we can stay unhappy until we get a certain salary, buy a house, get a new partner, or reach a career milestone.
But happiness science says it is not worth it to stay miserable until something big happens.
Despite your circumstances, you can be happy now without jeopardizing your future happiness.
True happiness, which tends to stem from internal factors like meaningful relationships, personal growth, purpose, and a positive mindset, can be felt on our journey to success.
8. Myth: Happiness is only for the young.
Truth: Happiness is not just for the young among us.
Happiness can be experienced at any age and stage of life.
While age may bring different challenges and experiences, happiness is a state that can be cultivated and nurtured regardless of age.
In fact, studies have found that our happiness increases with age.
Research has shown that people’s overall life satisfaction tends to increase as they age, up to a certain point.
A study by the University of Warwick suggests that people in their mid-50s tend to be the happiest, with life satisfaction then declining in old age.
This is often referred to as the “U-shaped curve of happiness” as satisfaction tends to be lower in youth and old age and highest in middle age.
9. Myth: Happiness is only for the religious or spiritual.
Truth: Happiness is not only for the religious or spiritual.
Religious people are happier overall, as research shows. But believing that happiness is only for religious people is a myth that keeps many people miserable.
Happy people see their religion not so much as something they “do” as what they “are”.– Swinyard & Kau, 2001
Happiness can be found through various means such as mindfulness, self-care, and personal growth.
The practice of these can bring a sense of inner peace and well-being regardless of one’s religious or spiritual beliefs.
An atheist can be as happy as anyone who follows a religion or faith.
10. Myth: Happiness is the ultimate goal.
Truth: Happiness is not the ultimate goal.
Seeking happiness tends to reduce happiness.
While happiness is a desirable state, studies show that our obsession with happiness can make us less content with our lives and less effective at reaching our actual goals.
Being happy is an important aspect of a fulfilling life, but that per se is not the greatest goal. So, don’t pursue happiness to get happier.
Don’t exclusively focus on happiness. Focus on things like improving your values, setting new goals, and interpreting situations positively. This will help you achieve greater overall well-being.
Meaning, purpose, and connection with others are also important elements that contribute to a fulfilling life.
- A study by Mauss & Tamir found that a constant desire to feel happier can make people feel more lonely and reduce everyday contentment.
- Kim & Maglio did four studies to prove that trying to be happy (either as a personality trait or by direct manipulation) consistently leads to feeling like there is less time available.
“People who pursue happiness often feel like they do not have enough time in the day, and this paradoxically makes them feel unhappy.”Kim & Maglio. Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness, 2018.
Pursuing happiness can hurt your well-being. Be happy, but balance it with other aspects of well-being.
Eleventh Myth: All happiness is the same.
Truth: Happiness is not a single thing or of a single type.
Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with this line:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It gave the Anna Karenina principle, which says happy people have the same things that make them happy, while unhappy people have many different things to make them unhappy.
It also implies that happiness is harder to get than sadness. Because many paths lead to sadness while only one path leads to happiness.
So, to get happy, you can fail in many ways, but there is only one way to succeed.
Aristotle expressed a similar thought when he observed in The Nichomachean Ethics, “For men are but good in one way, but bad in many.”
But both Tolstoy and Aristotle were wrong, according to science.
Positive psychology teaches us that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.
No one has it all, and no one lacks it all.
So, happiness is simple, in the sense that you instantly know when you’re happy.
But happiness is also complex, in the sense that different people may feel the same event differently, shaped by factors like their health, social support, financial security, and age.
- A grand family reunion. Someone in good health with a steady income would be excited, eager to spend time with their cousins, kids, and other relatives and have a good time. However, an elderly person may not be as happy because traveling is hard. A member of the family who is financially struggling may not feel as excited because they can’t buy gifts for people they will meet.
- A promotion at work. This would bring immense happiness to someone who values career growth and has a strong support system. However, another person may see the same promotion as a hassle. They would have to mediate team disputes, manage project timelines, and travel half the month, making this promotion a cause for dread.
So, it’s a myth that happiness is singular for all of us and that all happy people are alike.
Truth is, happiness can be different for different people.
Why are you less happy after achieving a long-desired goal?
Success makes us happy, but it does not guarantee sustained happiness. We are less happy after achieving a goal we have wanted for a long time. Our happiness starts to decrease and we gradually feel less happy, then almost normal, and then nearly sad. This is known as the arrival fallacy (find out more about it).
How can we redefine success beyond happiness?
To redefine success beyond happiness:
1. Focus on experiences and pursuing meaningful passions instead of external achievements or material possessions.
2. Set success goals that align with your passions and values, and recognize that happiness is not a constant state.
3. Practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion, which can help us accept our imperfections and embrace our authentic selves.
We can reject societal pressure to always be happy by disowning these sociocultural norms of happiness:
1. Happiness is the ultimate goal in life for everything we do. Truth: it is not.
2. Our happiness is in being better than our peers and neighbors. Truth: it is not.
3. We must always be happy and positive. Truth: it is okay to feel all other emotions.
We should rather redefine our success and happiness scales in terms of our relationships, gratitude, kindness, altruism, and other character strengths.
What are the happiness myths that make us miserable, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky?
According to Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky (author of The Myths of Happiness), there are three main happiness myths that make us miserable:
1. The myth of happiness as a destination. We often think that happiness is something that we will achieve once we reach a certain point in our lives, such as getting married, having children, or getting a promotion. However, Lyubomirsky argues that happiness is not a destination, but a journey. It is something that we must work at every day, and it will fluctuate throughout our lives.
2. The myth of happiness as a feeling. We often think of happiness as a feeling, such as joy, contentment, or peace. However, Lyubomirsky argues that happiness is more than just a feeling. It is also a state of mind, a way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us.
3. The myth of happiness as a personality trait. We often think that happiness is something that we are born with, or that it is something that we cannot change. However, Lyubomirsky argues that happiness is not a personality trait. It is something that we can learn and grow into.
Here are three take-home messages:
- Happiness is also being strong and getting through hard times and traumatic events.
- Don’t worry about looking happy; your happiness can be just a peaceful easy feeling inside.
- Finally, stop pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal; instead, engage in experiences to savor.
Happiness is more than what happens to us; it is something we create for ourselves.
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How to create happiness for yourself?
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy. His expertise is in mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoic philosophy.
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