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It seems that every day there’s a new study linking happiness to something, such as modern technology, forms of exercise, or quality of sleep. And yet still most of us feel we could be happier and wonder what we can do to achieve contentment. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosed mental health disorder and one in 10 Americans are on antidepressants—even while studies raise concerns about the safety of antidepressants.
Sometimes it helps simply to keep things in perspective. Here are some common myths about happiness, along with findings from scientific research that should help you take a reality check.
Myth: Debauchery and pleasure will bring you happiness.
Fact: Sure, you feel happy while indulging in fun activities, but the blissful feelings tend to last only as long as the experience. The key to prolonging those feelings doesn’t lie in more pleasure seeking, but rather in the common phrase “random acts of kindness.” Acts of compassion, such as volunteering, can help people realize their true potential and self-worth, which often leads to a happier self. Biologically, our moods are elevated when our bodies release serotonin endorphins, which can prompt even more generous behavior. Some studies even suggest that the mere thought of helping others could create feelings of joy by stimulating the mesolimbic pathway of the brain, the area of the brain responsible for reward recognition. Of course, actually engaging in charitable acts is likely to have an even greater impact on one’s happiness.
Myth: Money can’t buy you happiness.
Fact: This is partially a myth; obviously not all who are wealthy are happy. Yet while money can’t directly buy happiness, it can buy things that contribute to happiness.
Undoubtedly, financial struggles can bring unhappiness and stress. So can health concerns and job insecurities, both of which can be eased with a monetary safety net. One study found that happiness rises as income reaches $75,000 a year, but doesn’t increase measurably above that level and decreases the more it falls below that level. If finances have you feeling down, look for small changes that will have a positive effect on your financial concerns. Dwelling on your income level or amount of debt won’t help it disappear, so it’s better to focus on small positive steps towards change.
Myth: I’ll be happy as soon as…..
Fact: We all have something to finish that sentence; “I’ll be happy as soon as I find a partner,” “lose 20 pounds,” “get the promotion,” “move to a new city…” the list is endless. This is referred to as the arrival fallacy, or belief that there is a destination for which happiness will suddenly arrive. True lasting happiness is dependent on your behavior and attitudes, and while attaining short term and long term goals can make you feel joyful, it’s similar to the feeling you have with “debauchery” happiness. That feeling passes and yet another arbitrary target of happiness will likely emerge.
Myth: So many people are happier than I will ever be.
Fact: People can often dwell on the perceived happiness of others, not recognizing that the portion they see of that other person’s life is only part of the story. For instance, social media allows people the unique opportunity to carefully curate their life and post only those things they want to share about themselves. It’s easy to assume that others have idyllic lives when all you see are pictures of happy couples on exotic vacations. But that’s only one snippet of their lives. Idealizing the lives of others based on the little you know is only likely to bring unnecessary anxiety.
Myth: Negative memories are stronger than positive ones.
Fact: Studies have perpetuated this myth for some time, and it may be partially true. However, current studies suggest that positive memories win in the long term by helping you build resilience. That’s not to say that the more happy experiences you have in the bank, the less sadness you will feel when something bad happens, but rather that happy memories can equip you to better handle hardships and recover. This isn’t necessarily true for those suffering from mental illness, but even then, the combination of positive emotions and conventional therapy can show positive results.
Myth: Venting relieves negative emotions to allow room for happiness.
Fact: Not only does aggressive venting not relieve negative feelings, it perpetuates them. Basically, the way you feel holds great influence over the way you act, so releasing anger by punching a pillow, breaking dishes, slamming doors, and yelling will only make bad feelings worse. Experts suggest that of venting, you might be better off turning the frustration towards yoga and relaxation techniques that allow you to calm your body and mind.
Slideshow: 7 Ways to Improve Your Mood
Myth: A ‘reward’ will cheer me up.
Fact: Beginning when we’re small children we often are rewarded with food, which causes us to develop a strong mental connection between treats and happiness, known as the dopamine-driven reward system. When we are feeling depressed, we tend to look to comfort food for a quick fix, which triggers dopamine in the brain leading to a temporary feeling of happiness. This may last only a few minutes before feelings of guilt take over. Relying on comfort food to lift your mood can also cause weight gain, which, in turn, can sap your happiness.
In general, happiness is what you make of it and there are no guarantees or ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to achieve it. But you can become happier by learning about the causes outlined above. And it is most important to think of happiness in terms of long-term fulfillment and less about momentary euphoria.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d). Retrieved fromhttp://www.ninds.nih.gov/news_and_events/news_articles/brain_activity_during_altruism.htm
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Retrieved from http://www.csom.umn.edu/Assets/71516.pdf
Cohn, M.A., Fredrickson, B.L., Brown, S.L., Mikels, J.A., Conway, A.M., (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Incresase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3126102/pdf/nihms-222302.pdf
Brody, J. (1983, 003 08). Venting anger may do more harm than good. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/08/science/venting-anger-may-do-more-harm-than-good.html?pagewanted=all
Reinholz, J., Skopp, O., Breitenstein, C., Bohr, I., Winterhoff, H., Knecht, S., (2008, 005 38). Compensatory weight gan due to dopaminergic hypofunction: new evidence and own incidental observations. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2615020/