It’s easy to believe we'll be more satisfied with our lives when we finally snag that promotion or buy a house. But chasing after what we think will make us happy can actually make us less happy, according to one study from University of Denver, Boston College, and University of British Columbia researchers.
This is because constantly pursuing happiness raises our expectations for how we think we should be feeling, making the sunny state of mind constantly out of reach. (When the finish line keeps moving away from you, how can you ever make it to the end?) Here, we debunk six myths about happiness and find out what really brings joy.
Myth: Making More Money Will Make You Happy
Making more money can provide a sense of security, but money "doesn't guarantee anything, not even security, and especially not happiness," licensed professional and certified counselor Helen Chalmers says. A 2010 study backs this up: According to researchers at Princeton, there’s a threshold when it comes to how money affects our emotional well-being. Once you start bringing in $75,000 a year, your salary’s impact on your happiness plateaus.
Licensed professional and certified counselor Deb Del Vecchio-Scully says that hanging your happiness on waiting for a raise “prevents enjoyment of life” and “creates feelings of unworthiness." Being overly focused on earning more money can create a no-win situation, where we overwork in an effort to have more. And, typically, working more leaves less time to enjoy the rewards.
Rather than focusing on what you don’t have and the need to make more, take stock of your current finances and see where you can make changes. Discovering new ways to save money will improve your situation without putting pressure on yourself to find another job or secure a raise ASAP. Alternatively, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people whose money values line up with yours — if you’re the only nonprofit worker in a group of finance professionals, it’s easy to develop a false belief that your salary is inadequate.
Myth: Having More Friends Will Make You Happy
Thinking you'll be happier when you have a ton of friends is based on the belief that they will make you feel more loved, more involved, and less alone, says psychotherapist Christine M. Valentin, LCSW. The core myth at the heart of this belief, Del Vecchio-Scully adds, is that without a robust circle of friends to show the world, you don't have value or worth.
The truth is, the value of your friendships is far more important than the actual number of friends you have. Prioritizing quantity over quality might even make you feel worse, especially if you realize the people in your social circle “don't fulfill your expectations of friendship," Valentin says. Plus, being beholden to so many people can become a source of stress when your schedule is packed with so many obligatory coffee dates and happy hours that you don’t have time for yourself to recharge.
Rather than focus on the big group of friends you don’t have, nurture the relationships in your life. Reach out to those closest to you and make an effort to see the people whose company you truly enjoy. Appreciating these connections will remind you that you have all the friends you need.
Myth: Having the "It" Job or Getting a Promotion Will Make You Happy
Having career aspirations is wonderful. The problem is the false belief that you need to have a glam job you can show off, or that you must compete with your friends, coworkers, or family when it comes to moving up professionally.
Life and leadership coach Laura Gmeinder says that while many of us are told that success equals happiness, happiness really equals success. "Having an 'it' job can make you happy if it lets you live out your purpose," she says, but making career moves based on status definitely won’t.
Just because other people might think your job seems cool or impressive doesn’t mean it will be fulfilling or bring you more joy. Instead, focus on creating the career path that you want, not one that looks good to the people around you.
Myth: Achieving That Dream Goal Will Make You Happy
Perhaps all you've ever wanted is to get a book deal, or win a professional award, or earn some kind of life accolade that will make you feel like you've “made it.” According to life coach Jennifer Kern Collins, the myth that this is the ticket to happiness prevails because we believe that accomplishing a major goal will prove we’re successful. "We think it will get us more acceptance, more love, more money, more importance, more credibility — all of which enhance our sense of belonging," she says.
But this way of thinking places too much emphasis on the dangling carrot, and many people end up convincing themselves they will never be happy unless their goals are achieved, licensed marriage and family therapist Michelene M. Wasil, MA, LMFT, explains. Or they may attain the goal but realize that this external victory isn’t enough to make them truly happy.
Rather than put pressure on yourself to meet a certain goal for happiness’ sake, focus on the joy of the journey, not the result. If you’re really passionate about writing a book, start typing away. But if you’re clacking the keys only because you have grand visions of ending up on the best-seller list, it’s time to reevaluate.
Myth: Buying a Coveted Item Will Make You Happy
Whether you want a new car, an upgrade on your decade-old engagement ring, or a remodeled kitchen, it's easy to fall into the thinking that life will be better once that you’ve obtained that coveted thing. But the anticipation of getting a sought-after item creates more of a brain boost than the act of getting it, Wasil says. Oftentimes, once we get the thing we want, the rush subsides and we’re back to zero.
This can have a big impact on your wallet: "This belief that a material possession brings true happiness can lead to a vicious cycle of overspending," Wasil says. "When the initial high wears off, you convince yourself that the next item will do the trick. Most of the time, however, nothing externally obtained makes us truly happy." Instead of buying things, reward yourself by investing in experiences, she suggests. According to a 2014 study, spending money on experiences provide more lasting happiness than material purchases. So forgo the fancy handbag and use the cash to book a vacation or enroll in an art class.
Myth: Feeling "Settled" Will Make You Happy
Stability is something many of us crave, whether it’s a secure job, a steady relationship, or a permanent living situation, like buying a house. The myth of believing you'll find happiness when you're "settled" lies in that idea that your circumstances are what make you happy, Collins says, as well as the false belief that you'll instantly find safety and escape from the chaos and unpredictability in your life.
The truth is, every stage of life is full of instability and challenges, no matter how stable the situation appears from the outside. "We are never really settled because life is always moving," Collins says. "Yes, you're married and you’re not lonely anymore, but now you have to deal with marital issues. Yes, you bought a house, but now you have to do yard work and shovel snow. Yes, you got a stable job, but now you have new challenges and a new boss or coworkers to interface with."
By anticipating instability rather than security, you won’t have the false expectation that when “X” happens you’ll be happy. Instead, you’ll be able to see hurdles as learning experiences and realize that they’re just a part of life.