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Happiness: 6 Myths and Truths

Don't Fall for These Happiness Myths; Learn How to Overcome Them
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD

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.

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.

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