Many of us have misconceptions about what makes us happy and, as a result, fail to achieve happiness. Long-term happiness is a tricky concept so it is important to know what science tells us about happiness so we can achieve it long term.
Here are three of the most common myths I encounter with my clients in my work on happiness and human flourishing:
If I achieve X, I’ll be happy
These are things I hear a lot when I work with clients who are running hard in the hope that success will bring them happiness. “If I get this promotion, OR if I find a loving partner, OR when I save $X MM… Then I’ll be happy.” Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the premier researchers in the field of happiness, shows that life circumstances, such as getting a raise, only account for about 10% of our happiness. This happens because of a process called hedonic adaptation, which means that once we get something it stops being meaningful. Think about that latest model of iPhone you wanted to get and how happy you thought you would be once you got it. Reflect now on your happiness level, 3 months after getting it. Are you still enjoying that euphoric feeling when you first got it. Similarly, when we face hardships like an accident, losing a loved one, or getting fired, our level of happiness goes down. But again, with time, we get back to our base level of happiness.
Daniel Gilbert, a renowned social psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, validated this finding in his own research. When interviewing professors at a critical point in their careers—right before they get tenure—, most expected that getting tenure would make them happier. But once the professors had earned their tenure, Gilbert checked back in with them to ask how happy they were. Many professors expressed feeling happier after getting tenure, but only momentarily. Their happiness dissipated over time and, in fact, their tenure had no impact on their long-term happiness. Similarly, those who didn’t get tenure experienced momentary unhappiness, but it did not make a long-term difference to their level of satisfaction and well-being.
So, the scientific evidence is very clear in stating that positive or negative life circumstances are only temporary and make no difference in peoples’ long-term happiness. With this in mind, approaching happiness as something to be attained through achievement is not a good way to achieve long-term happiness.
If I pursue happiness, I’ll be happy
For some, happiness is something they pursue. People believe that if they just try to be happy all the time, they will be. Unfortunately, Dr. Iris Mauss disproved this in her work. She showed that people who had happiness as a key value in their lives actually ended up being less happy. In reality, they were lonelier and more depressed.
You can’t pursue happiness. Happiness ensues from living a virtuous life—living a life where we integrate key practices that rewire our brains to be happy.
And while we can’t be constantly happy, we can change our outlook to figure out ways of bringing happiness into our lives more consistently. This can be as simple as talking to a loved one on a regular basis or treating ourselves to something special each week. Doing this creates bursts of happiness that allow us to keep moving through life.
Happiness is linear and we can eliminate suffering from our lives
People think that, the more they practice, the more their happiness will continue to grow. But happiness cannot be constant or continuously increasing. That’s just not how life works. Suffering and setbacks are a core part of our life and there is no getting away from that. But what is possible is that as we integrate these practices into our lives, we can become antifragile—we can bounce forward.
Antifragile is a term defined by epistemologist and professor Nassim Taleb. He uses it to describe objects that face stress and don’t break, and actually emerge stronger. Humans have this ability too. PTSD is very real, but so is post traumatic growth. In fact, incidents of post traumatic growth are actually higher than incidents evolving into post traumatic stress disorder. Some people who experience trauma grow stronger from it.
We know this from our personal experience of exercising our body, for example. When we work out and pump iron, our muscle fibers tear under the strain, but when we recover the right way, the muscle fibers grow back stronger, allowing us to lift heavier weights. Similarly, the happiness practices outlined in the Hardwired for Happiness book, won’t eliminate suffering or the stress from our lives. But, they will prepare us to better manage the next bout of stress or hardship and make our way towards happier moments.
By becoming aware of these three myths, you can stop chasing happiness the wrong way. Instead you can focus on integrating the nine Hardwired for Happiness practices into your life to bounce back quicker and stronger from the next hardship you encounter.