The Top 10 Myths of Happiness

You have to achieve your dreams

Is there any more exalted line of wisdom in the known universe than the words we’ve all been told by parents and preachers, “follow your dreams”?These well meaning authority figures spill those words onto us out of love, since the unspoken conclusion is if you always chase your dreams, you will wind up happy, and yes, this is totally true--except when it’s not.

The reality is, sometimes the dream you chase leads to a result you’re not as in love with as you once thought, and other times it leads to the frustration of endless struggle followed by unfulfilled desire. An entire religion, Buddhism, was founded on the notion that desire itself is the cause of all suffering because when we desire something and lose it or don’t get it, we naturally also lose happiness. Deep desire can lead down the road of fulfilment or futility, and the choice of which is not always ours to make.

Don’t stop dreaming; let’s be very clear. The alternative of never going after the ideal job or spouse or weight is equally unrewarding in the regret it brings, so we’re left with the middle path to take, which begins with asking “is this really REALLY what is best for me now and especially ten years from now?” If not, it may be a false ambition that should be scrapped or at least re-worked.

The other, even bigger, question to ask is, “If I try but don’t get what I’m after, will I regret having gone for it?” A worthy dream should be something that is worth the chance of failing for.  A great destination is one that is arrived at from an even greater journey so at the very least, you are left with the journey to be proud of.

The world is full of shiny objects and romantic notions that pull at our attention, so guard your true deepest-down dreams with great care, lest they get mixed up with the false ones and leave you confused and unfulfilled.

You have to have kids to be fulfilled

Now that I’ve smashed your dreams let’s also get real about having kids. Maybe it’s because it’s such an inborn natural urge that we automatically assume having children is a necessary ingredient in a full life--and it can be,  but believing that would only tell half of the story. Research on parenthood shows that parents are actually less happy overall than non-parent while the kids are younger, but do rate themselves as feeling more meaning in their lives. Becoming a semi-slave to a an often unreasonable tiny human being is understandably a blow to the freedom and joy lived before parenthood, but the good news is happiness levels tend to go back up as the child ages, gains self-sufficiency, and eventually has what every older person craves--grandkids.

If you ask most parents, they’ll tell you their children are their greatest love and achievement, but not an easy one. So, while the title of “mom” or “dad” might give you more meaning, it can also detract from happiness. This is by no means to say “don’t have kids,” but rather, have them with a realistic view on what their existence will entail and not just because it’s expected by your family or society. We may be wired to reproduce, but nobody says we always have to follow our instincts.

You have to have a great job

Like most of these myths, the devil is in the details, especially when it comes to the impact of your job. Considering many people spend at least 8 hours a day, most days of the week working, of course the nature of that work will have an impact on their levels of well-being. A terrible job with a horrible boss will make you less happy than a great job with an amazing boss, but considering most people fall somewhere in the middle of those alternatives, how does that affect you?

Not as must as you may think. Studies show that the impact of getting a great promotion means more joy in the short term, but within a year that usually fades back to your original levels. But if you study hard and get a good education, you’ll be happier, right? Sorry, but the data also show more educated people are less happy with their lives, probably because the extra weight of more responsibility and social expectations to perform cancel out the perks.

What is helpful for anyone at any level of job is to put more focus on what they’re lucky to have. What aspects of your work can you appreciate? I didn’t say “do” you appreciate, but “can” you appreciate. There is always more that can be appreciated than you recognize now, and the more you pull into conscious, daily awareness, the greater satisfaction you’ll derive just by going to work! A simple way to build greater gratitude for your current work is to ask this:

“If I lost this job tomorrow, what would I start to miss about it?”

This will give you a new degree of positive emotion, regardless of the circumstance. Just having a paying job is something tens of millions of people would be thrilled about! Maybe you enjoy seeing a few special people at work, or some part of the day, or the location, or certain clients, that it keeps food on your table, etc. The options are endless, but also totally meaningless unless we notice and appreciate them.

More choices are always better

Have you ever found yourself staring at a menu, flipping back and forth anxiously trying to decide what to get while the server stands over you, pen in hand? You finally make the call, but for some reason you’re left wondering, “did I get the best option?” If so, then you’ve experienced firsthand what psychologists call “the paradox of choice,” which says that with more options come greater difficulty deciding and more regret afterward for having not chosen differently.

If it was limited to restaurants, it might not be such a big deal, but this paradox invades your feelings about your job, your location, and even your relationships. 200 years ago you were limited to dating the people in your immediate area of your city or town, who were in your same social class, or maybe your parents just picked a partner for you. Now, you can have relationships with anyone, anywhere and “swipe” through 50 potential mates in 60 seconds on your phone.

Yes, this opens up great possibilities for making marvelous connections, but it also creates an endless sea of “what if's?” and the gnawing thoughts of regret and uncertainty that come along.

For  all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “it might have been". John Whittier

The best way to keep from being victimized by the paradox of choice is to limit options to the best few--whether it’s menus or mates -- and completely commit to whatever you do pick, making the other options an impossibility. You cannot have all of the options, so don’t you want to deeply enjoy the ones you do have?

More money means more happy

Money is instrumental in being happy--but only up to a point. All the research points to more money actually increasing happiness, but only up to about 70,000$ for a single person if you live in the U.S. Some studies even have this number much lower. That’s because after you’ve taken care of your basic needs, like food, shelter, and a little bit of fun, having more money doesn’t seriously impact happiness. Much more influential are things like health, personal meaning, and relationships.

If you still are convinced that money will make you feel better, consider the story of German billionaire Adolf Merckle, who after losing nearly 3 billion dollars during the recent recession, laid down on train tracks and committed suicide. What makes this story so unbelievable is that at the time of his death, Merckle was still worth 6 billion dollars! If you can’t be happy with 6 billion dollars, maybe money isn’t what makes us feel good

Follow your heart to be happy

If there’s one myth of happiness that has been a foundation of the millennial generation, it is the exaltation of emotional reasoning-- in other words, giving massive meaning and weight to your feelings. We’ve become a generation that thinks our emotions are always justified and should be followed above all else. If you’re “not feeling” something, be it a job or a relationship, then the only honest thing to do is to disengage from it, right? But this line of thinking leads to being trapped by the whims of our feelings and unable to take actions we know we should just because they don’t align perfectly with our emotions.

Being aware of your thoughts and feelings is valuable, no doubt,  but the trick is being able to say both ‘yes” and “no” to these inner sensations when necessary. Saying “yes” is the easy part, but  “no’ is a bit harder, since it takes the ability to question and override our emotions, which seem so infallible. But often, the way you feel like acting is opposite of what you know needs to be done.  Any job will suck some days, but the ability to grit it out and keep showing up every day is what turns a job that sucks into a career that rocks.

The immediate-gratification mindset is just not compatible with the consistent and sometimes unpleasant reality of what it takes to break through a challenging situation. The more you learn to say “no” to the many emotional impulses that bombard you daily, the more control you will have to live the life you truly desire.

You have to love yourself first

Another belief that has only grown in recent decades is putting self-love above all else. The logic goes, “if you can’t love yourself, then how can you love any other person?” But what if we consider how we learn the concept of “love” to begin with? For most, it is from interacting with mom or dad, siblings, other kids we live around, etc. In other words, it’s by practicing with other people-- not just yourself-- that we learn how to be loving.

The other problem of putting self-love automatically ahead of love for others is that self-love is largely a product of self-respect, and self-respect is largely built from positively affecting the lives of others. You learn to love yourself because you love seeing yourself love others.

It is well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. Andrew Holmes

Self-love is beautiful because all love is beautiful. As you give it to others, also give it to you. From what I hear, you’re pretty lovable.

Only the young are really happy.

First, I recommend you talk to my 87-year-old grandma, who will quickly tell you how joyful aging can be, but if that isn’t enough, here are the plain numbers. Studies find that on average life satisfaction goes down slightly during your 30’s and 40's, but the good news is it climbs steadily from late 40’s to 80’s and beyond. Of course, these are only averages, and hopefully your happiness will be climbing regardless of age, but don’t make the mistake of feeling more anxiety from the thought of aging that the process itself will cause.

Isn’t western culture JUST the best!

That depends. When it comes to economic development, quality health care, democratic stability, and an endless array of new, shiny gadgets, yes, the west is the best...usually… sometimes. But if we only measure our “greatness” by these few--yet significant--factors, we risk missing a lot of factors that shape daily life.

Did you know there are many common mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia, that are abnormally common in western cultures but rare in others? The biggest negative impact on living in the western world may be obesity, but that's just one of many common things that are making us sicker and sadder.

Your phone is one of your biggest enemies. If you were to be hooked up to a heart and hormone monitor (as many have been in research) and had your cell phone ring, there would be an immediate rise in heart rate and cortisol--the tell-tale stress hormone. You often wouldn’t even notice it, but if we’re honest, hasn’t the ring of your phone been an immediate source of anxiety more than once or twice?

The western world is a gift in that it allows us to survive when the natural ebbs of natural selection would have previously said differently ( ever used an antibiotic?); connect with anyone, anywhere (ever used Skype or listened to the radio?) ; and have education for millions that would be fit a king of yesteryear (checked out Google recently?). It is a world to be celebrated daily.

When you recognize it’s many flaws and how they impact your daily life, you have the chance to defy them, remove them, or at least weaken their grasp.

You know what will make you happy, right?

Now that I’ve told you to screw your dreams, have fewer options, don’t follow your heart, and forget about the kids, I might as well tell you that you don’t even know what will make you happy. Oh, you think you know what will make you happy, but you’re probably wrong. Ok, not all wrong, but not as right as you think you are.

Here’s why:

  • We all have a happiness setpoint, like an emotional thermostat that keeps us in the same range. Research shows that both paraplegics and lottery winners will return to their previous happiness levels within a year. It is possible to change that level any time, but doing so takes more effort than we think.

  • We tend to overestimate how strongly things influence us. If you just lost the use of your lower body or just won 20 million dollars, you might be understandably crushed or thrilled, but countless past examples show that these feelings diminish rather quickly. Fantasizing about great and sudden wealth today is often more enjoyable than actually having it after a year.

  • We don’t learn from our mistakes! We think just because the last four promotions didn’t solve all our woes doesn’t mean the next one won’t.The last boy/girlfriend didn’t make us supremely happy, but the next one will. Once you have a belief in the ability of something or someone to change your life, it takes a lot to ever alter that belief, even if that belief is a fantasy. Often it is.

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