Happiness is a hot topic nowadays. There is lots of literature available about how to obtain happiness or how to pursue happiness efficiently and effectively. Much of the information is helpful but I believe some of it can be misleading.
There are many happiness experts who offer valuable information. This information can be especially useful if you are going through a complicated time. I remember engulfing myself with a lot of this information after experiencing a particularly rough breakup. I don’t want to imply that I was vulnerable to any type of self-help information that was available, but I was definitely looking for something to help me feel better.
Through much self-discovery and lots of hard work, I believe I am finally gaining a firm understanding of what happiness means to me. Much of the information on happiness is now being rooted in science. Positive psychologists are performing many experiments in order to determine what makes people happy, and the results are astounding to say the least.
So as a self-proclaimed life coach who is trying to spread peace, love, happiness, and well-being to others, it makes me feel great that the information I am sharing is scientifically supported. It is not necessarily the most important factor, but it proves the point that if you want to be happy there are certain things you probably should do.
Happiness is not some generalized feeling or emotion where one size fits all. What makes you happy and content is not necessarily going to make someone else feel the same way. There is no succinct definition of happiness. Rather there are different components of happiness that comprise the positive feelings you experience in your life.
You know when you are feeling happy and joyful. These are moments of pure contentment for you. The purpose of authentic happiness is to have a prolonged feeling of joy in your life even as the “bad stuff” occurs because it is inevitably going to happen. Scientists prefer to focus on three major factors when defining happiness: life satisfaction, positive affect, and subjective well-being.
Life satisfaction refers to the feeling that your life is great and worthwhile. You are satisfied with how you are living your life. Positive affect describes the feeling of experiencing a positive emotion. It is not used to describe a genuine state of well-being, rather the moment by moment experiences of joy. Subjective well-being is a combination of the life satisfaction and the positive affect you encounter throughout your life (Kahneman, 1999).
So it is time to filter through all the clutter of happiness. I’m going to do my best to disprove four popular myths about happiness that may have prevented you from living the most fulfilling life possible.
1. Happiness Is Inherent and Can’t Be Learned
According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, as well as other psychologists, you have a happiness set point which is shaped by your genetic make-up. So 50% of your ability to be happy is already set from the time you are born. This is probably why some people are considered to be more optimistic and others are considered to be more pessimistic. Happier people have happier genes and less happy people have less happy genes.
10% -20% of your happiness is determined by your life circumstances, i.e. whether you are wealthy or poor, attractive or not so attractive, or healthy or unhealthy. According to many studies this percentage has a small influence on your happiness in comparison to other factors.
That leaves 30-40% of intentional activity that you can take advantage of in order to integrate more happiness in your lives. What the research is stating is that even if you are not blessed with happy genes, exceptionally good looks, or a lot of financial security, you can still find ways to implement happiness into your life through your daily actions and routines.
In this sense happiness is not an inherent trait. Happiness is a skill that can be learned, utilized, and cultivated. Without delving too deep into the many “happiness practices” that are available let me give you some simple examples of actions you can take on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis in order to conjure up more positive emotions in your life.
Happiness can be learned through being more grateful. Adding a gratitude practice into your daily or weekly routine has been proven to make people feel more appreciative for the things they have and less likely to take things for granted. Happiness can be learned through moment to moment present living, which is best manifested through mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga. Happiness can also be learned by fostering relationships and helping others through random acts of kindness.
It seems people are quick to disregard happiness because you are either born with it or you are not. Contrarily happiness is a life skill that you can develop. Just as you can establish poor happiness habits you can generate positive ones as well. Incorporating happiness in your life is the same as learning a new language or a new instrument. It takes practice, patience, and lots of persistence.
2. Happiness Can Be Obtained Quickly and Easily
You know now that happiness is a skill. Any worthwhile skill is going to take time to develop. Athletes train for years to develop the skills necessary to be successful at their craft. Musicians practice for hours per day in order to learn how to play their instruments flawlessly and rhythmically. None of this just happens. It is not a quick and easy fix.
Giving this knowledge about skill development, obtaining happiness is no different. Be careful of available information that makes it seem like happiness can be gained quickly and easily. This is simply not true. There might be some people who are happier than others, or who have an easier time living with an optimistic perspective. I’m certain that these people have cultivated their happiness through lots of effort and practice. We all experience setbacks and adversity in life. Some people deal with it more gracefully than others.
If you endeavor to live completely happy and fulfilled then get ready to work. Be prepared to dedicate your entire life to your personal goal of well-being. Any goal you strive for in life is going to take a lot of practice, patience, and persistence. Happiness is no different. While you might not have to keep a daily gratitude journal or meditate every day for a specific period of time to experience a contented life, you are going to have to commit yourself every day to being happy. Eventually it will become habitual and dare I say smoother, but it is never going to be easy.
3. Happiness Is Out of Your Control
I think this myth is very difficult for people to overcome because there are so many things in life that are out of your control. Given this criteria how is happiness something you can control?
In order to control your own happiness you have to create it. Happiness creation has to be a part of your daily regimen. Besides all the tips and strategies that scientists have developed in order to cultivate genuine happiness you have to look within at your own emotional state. When are you happiest?
One of my favorite happiness experts, Gary van Warmerdam, beautifully sums up what happiness is “happiness is an emotional state of pleasure which in the realm of emotions, is love” (Happiness as Choice Podcast). Being happy from an emotional perspective means you are expressing pleasure, joy, and ultimately love. If you want to be happy then you should express love. This is often why you are happiest when you are around friends, family, and pets. It is not the person or animal that is making you happy, it is your expression of love that is bringing joy into your life (van Warmerdam).
Since you know how to create happiness it is your responsibility to take control of it as well. Many of the obstacles that prevent people from being authentically happy is the focus on external factors. The criteria in your mind tells you that your wife or husband should make you happy or the new house and car will make you happy. But this kind of thinking is detrimental to pure joy, and it creates the ideal that happiness is fleeting and out of your control.
Your relationships, job, and toys might add to your happiness. You are happy while spending time with your friends and family, and at work, and driving your car because you are expressing love. This kind of emotional interpretation is under your jurisdiction, no one else’s. You expressed love and now you are happy.
After you have taken control of your happiness, you can choose to be happy whenever you want. You can choose to articulate loving emotions, but you can also choose to articulate fearful emotions as well. As long as you are giving yourself the freedom to express emotions as you please you are taking control of your happiness.
4. Being Happy Means Always Feeling Good and Positive
This myth is difficult for people to comprehend. It is often assumed that in order to be happy you have be feeling positive all the time. Life is full of ups and downs. Similarly, happiness is an enduring state of well-being with emotional ebbs and flows. When you are genuinely happy you are going to be expressing love more than fear, anger, and discontent, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to ever experience negative emotions. On the contrary, suppressing these negative emotions can be dangerous and unhealthy.
While expressing loving emotions is healthy for your contentment, doing it all the time can be detrimental according to science. Setting unrealistic happiness standards can lead to disappointment when the standards aren’t met. Having gaudy happiness expectations can lead to more judging of yourself and less acceptance.
Dr. June Gruber has explored the misconceptions of happiness and she has studied how being happy all the time isn’t beneficial. She, along with her colleagues, determined four common misconceptions of happiness: too much happiness can lead to less creativity and safety, happiness is not suited for every situation, not all kinds of happiness are beneficial, i.e. too much pride, and pursuing happiness might make you unhappy.
From their studies they surmised that unhealthy levels of happiness can lead to poor decision-making and undertaking unnecessary risks; being happy in situations that don’t warrant it, i.e. death in the family, is not beneficial; and viewing happiness as a pursuit or something to be conquered, rather than a state of being to be cultivated, is dysfunctional (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011).
This science supports the idea that it is ok to feel sad and angry when appropriate. It is healthy to grieve for the death of a friend or relative. This doesn’t mean that you are an unhappy person because you experience bouts of negative emotion. It is denying your negative emotional state that can be toxic.
When you are authentically happy you know that you are going to have moments in your life where you don’t feel good. You are stable enough emotionally to experience the necessary emotions at that time because you know you are in control of them. At the same time, you are in control of your happiness. It doesn’t behoove you to pretend to be happy all the time when you are experiencing a trying circumstance in your life. With practice happiness will become an emotional state that is solidified by brief moments of adversity and despair.
Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness: How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives of Psychological Science, 6(3), 222-233. doi: 10.1177/1745691611406927
Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology, 3
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803 -25.
Oveis, C., Horberg, E. J., & Keltner, D. (2010). Compassion, pride, and social intuitions of self-other similarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 618-630. doi:10.1037/a0017628
Van Warmerdam, G. Pathway to happiness. http://pathwaytohappiness.com/. (21 May 2015)