7 Happiness Myths Debunked
I shouldn’t still be so gullible. In my life, there have been plenty of truths I’ve held to be self-evident — which then turned out to be completely false. Some were childhood fabrications (I’m looking at you, Tooth Fairy). Others were “facts” I first learned in school that were later debunked. (Remember when Pluto was a bona fide planet in our solar system and there were just four oceans in the world?)
Geography and astronomy aren’t the only fields in which new discoveries are forcing us to rethink what we’d been taught. These days, researchers are studying — and exposing surprising truths about — the science of happiness too. They’re finding that some beliefs about the pursuit of happiness that we’ve long held to be true won’t actually make our lives more fulfilling after all. In fact, they may actually distort our sense of satisfaction and goals. The good news? Happiness, they’ve found, is not as elusive as you might think.
Myth #1: Pursuing happiness will make me more satisfied.
Nope, say the experts: If your main goal in life is to “just be happy,” chances are you may just end up feeling sad. A series of studies lead by Iris B. Mauss, now at the Department of Pyschology at the University of California, Berkeley found that valuing happiness could actually be self-defeating. Paradoxically, placing emphasis on the value of happiness creates a higher likelihood of feeling disappointed.
It’s all about expectations. Consider when you find out bad news about a friend. Naturally, you’ll feel sad, empathetic or disappointed for her. But consider when you hear good news or experience something good in your life (getting a raise, celebrating a birthday). The expectation is that this will make you feel happy, but what if it doesn’t? If you feel neutral or even different from your expectation, it leads to disappointment.
Rather than striving for the thing or experience that will make you happy, why not strive for creating meaning and purpose in your life? And set aside the expectations. When you’re trying too hard to feel happy -- just because you think you should -- it may always end up out of your reach.
Myth #2: Apologizing will make me feel better.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be. You see, a University of Queensland study shows that, counter to what we’ve been told since we were kids, we won’t feel better after apologizing. In fact, I now have hard empirical data for why it is so hard for my 3-year old to utter those two words when he gets into a tussle at the playground. According to researchers, refusing to say you’re sorry after offending someone will actually boost your self-esteem. It appears we all feel a surge of power and control when we skip the apology. This may be something to keep in mind before you, once again, quickly mutter an unprompted “I’m sorry” even though you did nothing wrong (for example, when you’re walking down the street and someone bumps into you, but you’re the one who issues the sorry).
Myth #4: Plastic surgery will make me feel happier.
It’s crossed my mind when I gaze into the bathroom mirror after a long day of work, errands and housework: Could a little nip here, a little tuck there, make me happier? Probably not, say researchers. A European study published earlier this year in the Journal Clinical Psychology Science found that patients who had “reasonable expectations” did find that part of their body more attractive three, six, and 12 months out. But several studies have noted a distinction between happiness with the results of the surgery and overall levels of happiness. In another large study published last year, even patients who were satisfied with the outcome of their surgery reported no significant changes in self-esteem or periods of depression. (Patients with a history of depression or anxiety were less likely to be pleased with the outcome of surgery as well.)
It’s not even clear that plastic surgery will make you more attractive. In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Facial Plastic Surgery, subjects were asked to rate the “before” and “after” pics of those who went under the knife in the name of beauty. Scientists found that the post-surgery pics rarely were considered better-looking. Instead, it seems turning in early and getting a good night’s sleep may be the best shortcut to looking hotter. Now there’s a beauty secret (not to mention a $7,000 savings) I’ll try. Bonus: Researchers have actually found that getting more sleep can boost your happiness levels too.
Myth #3: I’d be better off if I let loose.
If I just spent less time sweating the small stuff, like cleaning out the refrigerator once a month or denying myself that pint of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, I’d be more relaxed and happier, right? University of Chicago research begs to differ. After surveying hundreds of subjects, they found that those who demonstrated more self-control were more satisfied than those who gave into their wants more often. It may seem counterintuitive, but those who answered yes to statements like, “I do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun,” felt more down more often than those who lived a life of self-denial, according to this recent Journal of Personality study.
Myth #5: More money, more happiness...right?
Ever thought a higher salary would make your life so much sweeter? Only to a point, say Princeton University professors. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers analyzed over 450,000 responses to a daily survey and found that emotional well-being rose with annual income--but only till it hit about $75,000 a year. Beyond that, they found “higher income (was) neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress.”
Perhaps the old adage is true: Money can’t buy you happiness. Or, at the least, it can only buy you a certain level of happiness. The rest is up to you.
Myth #6: If I had an easier or better-paying job, I’d be happier.
Not necessarily. In research for her book “Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that the happiest workers actually tend to be those facing the toughest, but most meaningful, challenges--from teachers in inner-city schools, say, to doctors working to eradicate disease in developing countries. Another finding: Money matters a lot less than you might think. In her research on what motivates people at work, Kanter found that “money acted as a scorecard, but it did not get people up-and-at ‘em for the daily work, nor did it help people go home every day with a feeling of fulfillment.”
Her findings were supported by Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher, who co-authored “The Progress Principle.” They found that “as long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work.” Given many of us spend about half our waking hours during the week at work, those feelings can have a tremendous influence on how we feel overall about our lives. As George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who directed the long-term Harvard Grant Study from 1972 to 2004, found: “Acquiring more money and power doesn't correlate to greater happiness…In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work.”
Myth #7: Being constantly connected makes you happier.
Do you like to maintain constant contact? The Internet, and most notably social media sites like Facebook, keep you perpetually plugged in. You can know what Aunt Sally is up to in Boise, even though you live all the way in DC. Theoretically, all this information should make you feel connected to your family and friends, thus bringing more happiness into your day to day, right?
Well, wrong. A study released by PLOS One examining how Facebook use affects well-being actually showed that the more you use Facebook, the worst you might feel. Being constantly connected and having that deluge of information of your “friends” (a term that could mean anyone from your mother to that colleague you met once in San Francisco at a conference) doesn’t mean you’re relating in any meaningful way with people, and could be causing you to negatively judge your own life and experiences as compared to those around you.
What does bring happiness is, unsurprisingly, creating real life personal interactions. So, why not try turning off your laptop, dialing a friend’s number, and seeing if you can catch up for dinner, or brunch this weekend? You might just find that hearing a story about how the dog literally ate her child’s homework, versus just seeing a photograph of it on Instragram, really does bring a smile to your face. Sounds better than sitting at home alone, constantly refreshing my news feed.