Have we been trying too hard to be happy? Does it seem like the more you strive for happiness the more it seems to elude you?
These may sound like odd questions coming from a blogger who writes about finding your bliss.
However, one recent study showed those that made happiness a goal, reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms.
Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed lately happiness isn’t quite as trendy as it used to be. A few years ago, the science of happiness made the covers of Time, Oprah, and even The Economist. Happiness articles and quotes glutted the Internet. The quest for happiness bred a whole industry of life coaches, motivational speakers, psychotherapists, research enterprises – and yes, blogs like mine.
But are we getting tired of pretending to be happy all the time? Are we sick of the media telling us to have a positive attitude no matter what’s happening in our lives?
Jimmie Holland, M.D., a psychiatrist with Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, coined the term, “the tyranny of positive thinking.”
Sometimes it might feel like we’re being bullied into thinking that if we don’t wake up every morning with an instant perpetual smile on our face – something is wrong with us.
Social media hasn’t helped. When I described some of the trials I’ve faced these past few years, a friend told me, “I would have never guessed. You look so happy in your Facebook pictures.” Yes, I suppose that I’ve fallen into that trap posting only photos that look like I’m having the time of my life – all the time. Of course, I’m not, but this is the fictionalized world we all live in with social media.
Commercials also make us feel like happiness is an entitlement. An instant feeling on tap that can be purchased with that new sports car or a new pair of shoes.
The truth is everyone has problems. No one is happy all the time. It’s like that quote from Regina Brett: “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.”
The fact is, most people have it worse than you despite the happy picture they are painting on Facebook. So maybe it’s time we all quit comparing our ‘happiness’ with others. Quit making “living happily ever after” some kind of prize we all want to achieve.
Negative Emotions Are Normal at Times
I was reading an interesting article, The Fallacy of Happiness, on Spike. The article pointed to a study by health insurers Aviva, that showed a quarter of adults in the UK suffer from stress, anxiety or depression and are not seeking help for it because they feel embarrassed by their “mental health conditions.”
“How strange it is that such normal, eternal human emotions as stress, anxiety and depression are now placed under the category of mental-health problems,” columnist Patrick West writes. “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, the clinical depression which leaves people unable to get out of bed for days: these are conditions that properly fall under the category of mental illness.”
He has a point. West contends that it’s natural to worry or feel low from time to time. These are normal human emotions that have somehow become pathologized.
All of a sudden, negative feelings are considered some kind of disease or aberration – something that must be cured right away. That’s become obvious with all the assortment of “happy pills” the pharmaceutical industry hands out like PEZ Candy. I mean, how did our parents and grandparents ever survive without prescriptions like Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac, Valium, and Ambien?
You Are Fine Just as You Are
Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, published a study on 700,000 women in midlife showing that there might not be a link between good health and happiness as other studies in the past have claimed.
Even more interesting than the results were the reactions of people, Of course, grumpy people were jumping for joy since they no longer had to endure accusations that their crappy attitude is endangering their health. But countless others were outraged that all their quests for happiness might not lead to good health and longer lives like they thought.
But here’s the thing. The giddy kind of happiness we have all come to expect is not the norm. Life can be a struggle at times, filled with disappointments, failures, and obstacles.
Many people who make happiness their objective are trying to avoid uncomfortable negative feelings that come with the normal ups and downs in life. We can’t be happy all the time. Happiness is fickle.
Everyone has those heart wrenching moments when it’s impossible to be a Pollyanna. For example, I wasn’t jumping for joy while watching my Mom die after suffering from a horrible disease this past year. I wasn’t cheerful as I watched the painful disintegration of my son’s marriage and the effect on my three grandchildren. When I first started writing, I wasn’t exactly exultant when stacks of rejection letters filled my mailbox. Or ecstatic when people I loved betrayed me. You get my drift.
Should we still try to aim for a positive attitude? Definitely. Will we always achieve it? No.
Groundbreaking work by Iris Mauss supported the idea that striving for happiness may actually cause more harm than good. “When people want to be happy, they set higher standards by which they’re more likely to fall short,” she said. “This, in turn, may lead to greater discontent, in turn, lowering levels of happiness and well-being.”
Mauss explained, she’s not saying, ‘Don’t try to be happy,’ If you give people the right tools, they can increase their happiness and well-being, she notes. It is an exaggerated focus on happiness that can have downsides.
No matter where you fall on the happiness spectrum – which in part is due to genetics – self-acceptance is key.
Let’s face it, I’m never going to be giddy and giggly, but that’s okay. If you’re like me, a bit on the serious side, you can take comfort from studies that show too much cheerfulness can make you gullible, selfish, and less successful. A wee bit of unhappiness, in fact, can inspire us to make necessary changes in life.
Happiness is not a Goal
“Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived,” Eleanor Roosevelt famously said.
So, let’s all ditch happiness as a goal. As I wrote about in a previous blog, aim for fulfillment instead. Strive for contentment. Set your sights on inspiration and adventure. Search for purpose and meaning in life.
If you make those your goals, you’re more likely to feel the joy and happiness you’ve been searching for all along without even trying.
Images courtesy of Stuart Miles and iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.