Everyone has their own idea about what happiness is but there is no quick fix to finding consistent happiness. Yet we often find ourselves swayed toward those temporary measures to live a good life, and struggle to understand why the happy buzz didn’t last long.
The pursuit of happiness is embedded within many myths, is not at the end of our wallet, in our bank account, or something to wait for with a belief that “I will be happy when I get a promotion, when I finish my degree, when I find a partner.” Happiness is not a commodity, yet we are sold the idea that we can buy it. And happiness is not solid or as long-lasting as we believe it to be but rather exists on a continuum and often within a state of flux. The myth of happiness tells us that if anything negative happens such as a divorce, illness or bereavement then we will be unhappy for the long term. And as much as we may buy into the ill-conceived idea of happiness, many of us are conflicted about what happiness actually is and how to maintain it, partially because of the many misconceptions about how to achieve contentment and happiness.
To debunk some of the most misunderstood ideas surrounding happiness, Dr Róisín Joyce, director and chartered clinical psychologist at the Evidence-Based Therapy Centre in Galway, helps us to understand this emotion.
1) Myth – There is something wrong with you if you’re not happy all the time
“People often feel like there is something wrong with them or that they are in some way broken because they do not feel happy all the time,” says Dr Joyce, noting that the first thing to be aware of is that happiness is an emotional response to an internal or external trigger rather than a constant state of being.
“As humans, we are continually interacting with stimuli, people and situations that can activate emotional responses in us,” she says. “Whether or not something provokes an emotional reaction in us and what type of emotion is provoked depends on a number of factors such as our brain development, our temperament and our personal histories.”
[ Brianna Parkins: Hikes and swims are what healthy and happy people do, right? I think it’s the exact opposite ]
[ The tools you need to get healthy and happy ]
Dr Joyce illustrates this idea with the example of a child growing up with a lot of parental criticism. “They might get very upset when given any feedback at work or in relationships,” she says. “They may experience themselves as an ‘unhappy person’ but when you start to understand their emotional response in the context of their history, it makes perfect sense that experiencing criticism triggers sadness in them. By gaining an understanding of why we feel and respond in the way we do, it can result in greater self-compassion, self-care and increased peace of mind.”
2) Myth – You can’t be happy unless everything is the way it should be
“Human beings are always telling stories,” says Dr Joyce. “In the absence of facts, we simply make up a story that fits well enough and go from there. This can serve us well in many circumstances, but it can also lead to a great deal of suffering.”
Taking the idea of a simple family meal out together, Dr Joyce asks us to imagine the scene. “Everyone is dressed up, chatting pleasantly, smiling and laughing. You then get to the restaurant and your children start bickering or the food is not as tasty as you remember. In this moment, your expectations of the situation and the reality do not match, and this can lead to feelings of frustration, anger and disappointment.”
Happiness is an emotional state which sits with those feelings of satisfaction, fulfilment and joy. We settle well here because it’s a state of being comfortable, feeling good and content. When other feelings creep in to rock the boat, our happiness meter can drop because we live within rigid expectations and struggle to accept that happiness exists with other emotions.
“These emotions can lead to unhelpful thinking loops that then fuel further emotions such as, ‘This is so unfair, this is our only night out all month’,” says Dr Joyce. “In this way, our fantasies about how things should be interfere with us being able to manage situations as they arise and enjoy the situation as it is and so can actually rob us of our joy and happiness in the moment.”
3) Myth – External factors (money, holidays, cars etc) will bring you happiness
The endorphins released when clicking Buy Now are pretty powerful but that rush of hormones only gives a temporary jolt of happiness. As soon as that item is in our possession, our happiness levels drop back to before we spent our hard-earned cash. The unhelpful belief that buying big-ticket items like holidays and cars will make us happy is harmful to not only our bank balance but also our understanding of what makes us happy.
[ Measuring happiness matters – it’s a graph people might actually want to see ]
[ How workplace wellbeing is playing a leading role in corporate culture ]
“There is evidence that money does make us happier, but only up to a point,” clarifies Dr Joyce. “The level of income that correlates to happiness varies in different studies but there is a consensus that once you have enough money to meet your household needs, there is no further happiness benefit in having more money. There is also research to suggest that being generous with money and buying experiences are both correlated with happiness and so, in this way, the way you use your money is important too.”
4) Myth – Happiness means feeling only good and positive emotions
“Many people have an idea that people who appear happy are feeling happy all the time,” says Dr Joyce. “Of course, this cannot be the case because anyone who is alive experiences moments of suffering all the time. These can be small disappointments such as losing out on an opportunity or major life events such as a bereavement.”
We have power and influence over our emotions and how we experience them, thereby affecting our level of happiness. The choices we make include how we navigate feelings outside of the happiness realm. All emotions are important, valid and serve each other.
“People who experience peace of mind are able to experience the emotions that go with the normal ups and downs of life without these emotions taking over,” she says. “They do this by acknowledging their emotions, knowing that they are part of the normal fabric of life and helping themselves in any way they can. In this way, their emotions flow through them and pass quickly, meaning they can return to a settled state of mind again. It is our attempts to repress our so-called undesirable emotions that leads them to last longer and cause even more suffering and disturbance.”
[ Only girls have to worry about it: Challenging myths about eating disorders ]