We Were Wrong About Happiness. Here’s the Real Deal
We might even convince ourselves that when it comes to happiness, what we don’t have and don’t know how to get must be unattainable anyway. But it turns out that despite many a myth about happiness, disposition is not destiny and moods are malleable. Once you bust common myths about mood (which we do below with a little help from scientific research) you can follow our straightforward steps to turn these findings into a real-life, make-yourself-happier-now practice.
Myth: You’re either born happy or not—it’s not something you can change.
Actually, only about 50 percent of your mood “set point” (our natural emotional baseline in the absence of stimuli) can be traced to genetics and research shows there are plenty of ways to train our brains to be more positive . (Yes, this means you’ll have to stop blaming mom and dad for your crankiness!) Study after study has shown that regardless of a person’s starting disposition, there are simple behaviors that will increase happiness and overall feelings of well-being.
And the good news is that these behaviors don’t have to be huge changes. Simple things like appreciating a few things every day, performing small acts of kindnesses for others, trying new things, or even spending money on other people have been shown to increase the feeling of happiness you experience . Feeling positive more often is accomplished simply by making the choice to spend less time focusing on what isn’t great and more time appreciating the good moments (no matter how small or fleeting they might be) and awesome people in your life.
Get happier now: The next time you’re grabbing coffee, pay for person behind you. The feel-good mood bump will be worth every penny!
Myth: You can control how you act, but you can’t control how you feel.
Just as feelings can influence actions, it turns out actions can also influence feelings. Humans may be complex socio-emotional beings, but in some ways, we’re a fairly predictable set of interconnected systems—and that extends to the relationship between our physical actions and our emotions. You know how people suggest you “keep your chin up” or “grin and bear it?” It may sound crazy, but these simple physical actions (i.e. mimicking a more positive affect than you feel) can induce a correlating emotional response.
Studies have shown that even fake smiles reduce overall stress. And get this: People whose ability to frown is hampered by Botox injections are less negative . What this means from a practical standpoint is that the old adage of “fake it ‘til you make it” applies to happiness; pretending to be happy (or, more accurately, behaving in a manner that corresponds to a happiness you may not be feeling at the moment) does, indeed, make you happier. And that means you can control how you feel (to some extent), via controlling your actions.
Get happier now: You guessed it: Smile! You can even set calendar alerts as reminders to do so regularly and consistently. While it’s not an instant cure-all, it will reduce your body’s stress response and make you feel better (even if you’re gritting your teeth behind that grin).
Myth: People who are generally happy just have pretty good, stress-free lives.
There’s a saying that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react. But there’s no reliable correlation between happiness and objective “ease” of one’s life circumstances. One study, for example, looked at data about people’s relative happiness levels before, while adjusting to, and then during marriage (and for some, on to widowhood). Contrary to conventional wisdom about the trajectory of happiness in a new marriage (that most people can expect a so-called honeymoon period followed by some level of difficulty as partners get used to their new reality), it concluded that happier people adjusted to marriage more quickly and experienced fewer well-being “bumps” along the way. Their unhappy counterparts adjusted slower and were more likely to experience greater emotional ups and downs over time. In other words, people who were experiencing the same stressors (these results stood even when controlling for other factors such as gender and age) responded to them differently, with happier people experiencing less severe emotional swings and greater adaptability .
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.” In other words, life happens to everyone—good and bad—and those who are happier overall don’t necessarily have better lives, just better outlooks.
Get happier now: Write down a recent change in your life (good or bad) and then follow it with three good things that have come out of that change. For example: “My car is in the shop and I have to dip into my savings for the repairs. But being car-less means I get to carpool with my co-workers who I’ve been meaning to get to know.” (Dig deep, if you need to: “My boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with me, moved out, and took the cat” is a bummer, but having less laundry to do and no litter to change is a silver lining, right?)
Myth: Having a positive attitude means never getting upset or frustrated about anything.
Having a positive mindset doesn’t mean you never have negative feelings. It doesn’t mean constantly thinking, “La la la, I’m so happy!” either. No one exists in a state of unfettered happiness 100 percent of the time, nor does happiness equal ecstatic jubilation . What separates happy people from their unhappy counterparts is both a greater focus on the good things in life and an ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable disappointments. Despite experiencing the same range of emotions as those who are less happy, happier people spend less time and energy dwelling on their negative feelings. They get stressed, upset, and down, but they build up their resilience by choosing to move on from negative feelings more quickly.
Being happier isn’t about acting like a robot, but about accepting that sometimes bad stuff happens, dealing with it, and choosing to shake it off and focus on something positive to keep moving forward.
Get happier now: Designate a “worry time” for yourself each day—no more than five minutes—during which you will allow yourself to indulge in all the negative thinking you want. Set a ritual to conclude your worry time—something designed to refocus on the good, such as performing a small act of kindness for someone, writing down a point of gratitude, or making a note of something in the recent past that’s made you feel relieved, happy, etc.
Myth: Being unhappy makes you work harder.
Though the idea that being content makes us complacent is pervasive, the opposite is in fact true: happier people are actually more productive than their less happy counterparts . Why? Because it isn’t success that makes us happy, but happiness that makes us successful .
This means it’s time to ditch any justification you might be using about how being disgruntled is somehow motivating you. The research points to happiness being a prerequisite for true life success. Think about it: If you’re miserable at your job, maybe you think it’s motivating you to search for another one, but in the meantime you’re not as productive in your current position, which means you don’t present as a stellar candidate for a new job, which probably makes you even more unhappy at the current job, which… you get the idea. On the other hand, if you’re a fairly happy person, you’re not only less likely to find your job unsatisfying (you’re probably less of a complainer in general, more able to shake off petty annoyances, etc.), you’ll be able to stick with even a sub-par position and do your best until you can move on to something else.
Get happier now: Schedule a five-minute “Happy Break” in the middle of your workday every day for a week. Use that time to savor a treat you love (I suggest a square of really good dark chocolate), listen to your favorite song, text a loved one, or otherwise do something that you know will lift your mood. Don’t be surprised if you discover you got more done at the end of the week!
It can be pretty easy to come up with supposed reasons why you can’t feel happy, but try saving that energy and using it to do one of the really simple things that science shows can actually make you happier. The research proves a more positive mindset needn’t be mysterious nor fleeting, and it not only makes life more pleasant, it can also do everything from making you more productive to extending your lifespan. Your happier self (and the people around you) will thank you!
Nataly Kogan is CEO and Chief Happiness Officer of Happier. Happier is inspired by scientific research that shows there are simple things all of us can do to feel more positive, less stressed, and get more of what we want out of life. Happier offers free courses, an interactive gratitude journal, and a supportive, uplifting community.