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Happiness: 6 Myths and Truths

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

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.

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