If asked to describe how I feel most of the time, I’d say tired (dog tired) and stressed. I do feel happy at times, but it’s difficult to recall feeling happy for an extended period of time. A recent poll of my friends and a quick skim through my Facebook feed, confirms I’m not the only one that feels like this.
It seems being happy is far from simple or easy. Often life gets in the way and events beyond our control can shift happiness further down our list of priorities. It can also seem selfish or indulgent to pursue our own happiness, so we discourage ourselves from doing so.
But recent scientific and psychological research seems to suggest that some of what we know about happiness, might not be true. In particular, it seems we’ve underestimated the value of happiness and the benefits it provides us and society as a whole:
Happiness is about pretending to feel happy all the time
Whilst we can define ‘happiness’ as feeling good about life over an extended period of time, this does not mean we should pretend to always be happy. We need balance. We should not deny negative emotions, because they are part of what it is to be human. Mark Williamson Director of Action for Happiness, suggests that both negative and positive emotions have a role to play in our lives. Negative emotions like anger and fear can help keep us safe. Whereas positive emotions like hope and enjoyment enable us to connect with others and increase our capacity to cope with adversity. Happiness is therefore about making the most of good times, so we can cope during the inevitable bad times.
A higher income increases our happiness
Unfortunately not. Research suggests that we are no happier today than people in the 50’s, irrespective of the benefits of our higher incomes.
In an article for the Guardian, Mark Williamson outlined the reason for this stating that:
“The positive benefits of higher incomes have been undermined by rising inequality and falling levels of trust and social cohesion”.
Furthermore the greatest social challenge we face as a society is mental ill health, something that can affect anyone regardless of income. It’s estimated that depression and anxiety alone cause more suffering than unemployment or poverty.
Happy people are lazy and complacent
Research suggests the opposite. A study by Warwick University demonstrated that happy people were more productive than unhappy or neutral people. So feeling happy doesn’t just make us feel good, it’s productively beneficial.
In another study, Lyubomirsky and team found happy people were often more successful, observing higher levels of motivation, creativity and engagement in their brains.
Additionally, happiness can be linked to better decision-making, so it would appear that happy people are far from complacent.
The pursuit of happiness makes people selfish
Not so, research suggests that happiness is catching as it can positively influence the mood of people around us. In a study spanning two decades, The British Medical Journal found that happiness could affect the networks of participants across three degrees of separation. In addition, rather than acting selfishly evidence suggests happy people have a greater respect for others and they make a larger contribution to society. For instance, they are more likely to vote, undertake voluntary work, take part in community activities and are less likely to engage in risky behaviour.
Happiness only makes you feel better, it doesn’t affect your physical health
A volume of compelling evidence disputes this as happier people not only have better overall health, they are more likely to live longer. For instance, Kubzansky found that happiness could reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Dr Anjuli Srivastava also found an association between happiness and improved health in whole communities, not just individuals. So it would appear that happiness is far more than a nice feeling.
You have no control over happiness
Not according to research. Action for Happiness states that 40% of our variation in happiness is affected by our conscious decisions and everyday activities. It’s therefore quite possible to permanently alter our happiness. Paul Dolan author of Happiness By Design, advises that to pursue happiness, we must do more than simply think differently, we must identify what makes us happy, and do it frequently.
With the myths about happiness exposed you may be interested to know that movements such as Action for Happiness are keen to help us make our lives happier and more fulfilling. Action for Happiness is a global movement that brings together like minded people and suggests simple actions to perform in our homes, workplaces and neighbourhoods; to make us, and the people around us, feel happy, accepted and valued. Their website has a wealth of information on happiness and some really useful resources.
How do you feel about the pursuit of happiness? Are you surprised by any of the myths I’ve exposed? I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment and share my article on your social media!