Happiness: 6 Myths and Truths

Don't Fall for These Happiness Myths; Learn How to Overcome Them

From the WebMD Archives

If you'd like to have more joy in your life – and who wouldn't? -- the first step may be to change your views about what happiness really is. See what experts have to say about common myths about happiness that may actually be holding you back.

Myth 1: Either you have it or you don't.

Say you have two kids you've raised just the same, but they have opposite personalities -- one sour, the other sunny. This makes it hard to dispute the fact that genes play a powerful role in each person's happiness. And there's evidence that suggests genetics contributes to about 50% of your happiness "set point" -- the level of happiness that seems most normal for you.

But that's a far cry from 100%, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want and professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

"If you do the work," Lyubomirsky says, "research shows you can become happier, no matter what your set point is. You probably won't go from a one to a 10, but you can become happier. It just takes commitment and effort as with any meaningful goal in life."

Not only can you become happier, she says, but it gets easier over time. Work on nurturing relationships, writing in a gratitude journal, committing random acts of kindness, or developing a program of morning meditation or exercise. Changes like these -- proven methods for enhancing happiness -- can become habits after a while, which means they eventually take less effort.

Myth 2: Happiness is a destination.

Many people think of happiness as a destination or acquisition -- whether it's marriage, money, or a move to a new location. Sure, things like these can contribute to happiness, but not as much as you might think, Lyubomirsky says. They account for only about 10% of your whole happiness picture.

If you've done the math, you now realize that about 40% of your happiness is in your hands. Lasting happiness has more to do with how you behave and think -- things you control -- than with many of life's circumstances.

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Robert Biswas-Diener, co-author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, agrees.

"Happiness isn't the emotional finish line in the race of life," he says. It's a process and a resource. Biswas-Diener says there's a mountain of data showing that when people are happier, they become healthier and more curious, sociable, helpful, creative, and willing to try new things.

"Happiness is not just an emotional flight of fancy," he says. "It's beneficial for the long run, serving a real function in our lives."

In psychological lingo, this is called the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, says Michael A. Cohn, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Cohn recently conducted a study with 86 college students who submitted daily emotion reports. The researchers measured the students' ability to flexibly respond to challenging and shifting circumstances and used a scale to assess life satisfaction. The study showed that positive emotions increased resilience -- skills for identifying opportunities and bouncing back from adversity -- as well as life satisfaction.

Myth 3: You always adapt to your happiness set point.

It's true that people tend to adapt fairly quickly to positive changes in their lives, Lyubomirsky says. In fact, adaptation is one of the big obstacles to becoming happier. The long-awaited house, the new car, the prestigious job -- all can bring a temporary boost but then recede into the background over time.

Why does this happen? One reason, Lyubomirsky says, is that we evolved to pay more attention to novelty. For our ancestors, novelty signaled either danger or opportunity – a chance for a new mate or food, for example. We're attuned to contrasts, not sameness. But that also means we readily adapt to positive experiences that happen to us, Lyubomirsky says.

"I argue that you can thwart adaptation, slow it down, or prevent it with active ways of thinking or behaving," says Lyubomirsky, who, after moving to Santa Monica, Calif., found herself adapting to her beautiful surroundings. To counteract this trend, she put effort into appreciating the view she saw when running on a path overlooking the ocean. She says she now savors that view every day, trying to see it "through the eyes of a tourist."

To help thwart adaptation, you can also use novelty to your advantage. For instance, if your home has become a little ho-hum, you might try rearranging furniture or hosting parties for a variety of friends. Voluntary activities like these are most effective because they require you to pay attention, Lyubomirsky notes.

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Myth 4: Negative emotions always outweigh the positive ones.

For quite some time, research has indicated that negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones, Cohn says. For example, studies show that people don't have equal reactions to winning $3 and losing $3, he says. The loss tends to have a stronger effect than the gain.

Negative emotions might edge out positive emotions in the moment, Cohn says, because they're telling you to find a problem and fix it. But positive emotions appear to win out over time because they let you build on what you have, a finding reinforced by Cohn's recent study.

"We found that as positive emotions go up, there comes a point where negative emotions no longer have a significant negative impact on building resources or changing life satisfaction," Cohn says. "Positive emotions won't protect you from feeling bad about things, nor should they. But over time, they can protect you from the consequences of negative emotions."

This may not be true for people with depression or other serious disorders, although they do show benefits when positive emotions are added to conventional psychotherapy, Cohn notes.

Myth 5: Happiness is all about hedonism.

There's more to happiness than racking up pleasurable experiences. In fact, helping others -- the opposite of hedonism -- may be the most direct route to happiness, notes Stephen G. Post, PhD. Post is co-author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life.

"When people help others through formal volunteering or generous actions, about half report feeling a 'helper's high,' and 13% even experience alleviation of aches and pains," says Post, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

"For most people, a pretty low threshold of activity practiced well makes a difference," Post says. This might involve volunteering just one or two hours each week or doing five generous things weekly -- practices that are above and beyond what you normally do.

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First documented in the 1990s, mood elevation from helping is associated with a release of serotonin, endorphins -- the body's natural opiates -- and oxytocin, a "compassion hormone" that reinforces even more helping behavior, Post says.

Could compassion be rooted in our neurobiology? A National Academy of Sciences study showed that simply thinking about contributing to a charity of choice activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, the brain's reward center, which is associated with feelings of joy.

"Although just thinking about giving or writing a check can increase our levels of happiness, face-to-face interactions seem to have a higher impact," Post says. "I think that's because they engage the [brain's] agents of giving more fully through tone of voice, facial expression, and the whole body."

Myth 6: One size fits all.

If you're seeking a magic bullet or mystical elixir to enhance your happiness, you're bound to be sorely disappointed. There is no "one size fits all" for happiness.

Instead, there are many ways to boost your happiness. Here are options to try:

  • Pick an activity that is meaningful to you, Cohn says. Whether you choose an activity that promotes a sense of gratitude, connectedness, forgiveness, or optimism, you'll be most successful if your choices are personally relevant to you. And, he adds, this may also keep you from adapting to them too quickly.
  • Assess your strengths and develop practices that best use these gifts, Post suggests. Are you a good cook? Deliver a meal to a shut-in. A retired teacher? Consider tutoring a child. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
  • Vary your activities because promoting happiness is largely a question of finding a good fit, Lyubomirsky says. To that end, she helped Signal Patterns develop a "Live Happy" iPhone application that starts with a short survey to identify the happiness strategies that you're suited to, such as journaling or calling someone to express gratitude. "You can lose your will [to do those activities] if it's not a good fit," Lyubomirsky says.

And when it comes to happiness, maintaining your will -- and acting on it -- might just put a pleasurable, meaningful life well within reach.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD on August 28, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Sonja Lyubormirsky, PhD, professor of psychology, University of California, Riverside.

Robert Biswas-Diener, MS, founder of Meridian Life Coaching LLC.

Michael A. Cohn, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, University of California, San Francisco.

Stephen G. Post, PhD, professor of preventive medicine; director, Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y.

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