What are the myths of happiness?
Decades of research on the science of happiness shows that there’s a big—and potentially life-altering—difference between what you think will make you happy and the things that actually do, argues University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, in her fascinating book The Myths of Happiness. If you buy into any of the following myths (and nearly all of us do), read on to find some refreshingly creative strategies to boost your bliss.
Myth: The right marriage will provide endless happiness
Science says: The average person picks up a sizable boost in happiness when he or she gets married, but this only lasts about two years. After that, the former newlywed reverts back to his or her happiness level before the engagement.
Boost your bliss: Delight in your partner’s good news. According to Lyubomirsky, “the closest, most intimate, and most trusting relationships appear to be distinguished not by how partners respond to each other’s disappointments, but how they react to the good news.” When your husband shares that he’s getting promoted, reacting with joy and asking enthusiastic questions signals that you care. Being silently supportive or pointing out downsides (“Oh, you’ll have to work on weekends?”) undermines happiness.
Myth: Your “dream job” will make you happier at work than you currently are
Science says: You adapt to all new experiences, and so any joy from a new work environment will likely fade with time. If you’ve gained responsibility, your expectations and aspirations will increase too, which can detract from happiness. One classic study tracked job satisfaction before and after a voluntary job change among high-level managers whose average salary was $135,000. Researchers found that managers experienced a burst of happiness right after the new job, but within a year, satisfaction plummeted to their pre-move levels.
Boost your bliss: To avoid taking a new job for granted, Lyubomirsky advises “re-experiencing” what it was you didn’t like about your previous work. If you used to make a lot less money, spend one week a month living on your old salary. If you worked nights, periodically make yourself stay at work late. Mentally transporting yourself to where you didn’t want to be will help you find more happiness in your current role.
Myth: A bigger salary makes you happier
Science says: What your friends, family members, and colleagues make relative to your salary seems to affect your happiness more than what you make, no matter how much it is. For example. Lyubomirsky describes one study that found people prefer to live in a world where they make $50,000 and others earn $25,000 than in one where their annual salary is $100,000, but others make $200,000.
Boost your bliss: One way to “buy” happiness is to use money to buy another limited resource: time. Paying people to do time-consuming chores (paint the house, fix the plumbing) allows you to spend your time doing other things that make you happy, such as spending time with your family, volunteering, and enjoying a show.
Myth: A bigger house will boost your happiness
Science says: If that mega-square foot home means you have to take out a barely affordable mortgage, it may not give as much pleasure as you’d hope. Research shows that eliminating negative experiences (like, worry associated with debt) makes you three to five times more happy than creating a positive experience (like, splurging on something). According to Lyubomirsky, “pleasure from the house can’t come close to matching the pain and worry of eking out monthly mortgage payments.”
Boost your bliss: Research increasingly shows that experiences, not things, make us happy. And “it appears that the happiest people are those who are most skilled at wringing experiences out of everything in which they invest their money, whether it’s a guitar, a plane ticket, a camera, cake decorating lessons, or running shoes.”
Myth: You’re happier after you reach a big goal
Science says: Many studies show that people who are striving toward a goal are actually happier than when they accomplish it. This, Lyubomirsky writes, “contradicts one of the primary myths of happiness, which tells us to wait for happiness until we realize our dreams.” Pursuing goals gives us pleasure by creating structure, deadlines, and opportunities to learn new skills.
Boost your bliss: Savor every “subgoal” (performing well at an audition) you accomplish on the path to your bigger goal (becoming a Broadway actress). “Instead of focusing too much on the finish line in the first place, we should focus on—and enjoy as much as possible—carrying out the multiple steps necessary to make progress,” Lyubormirsky says.
Myth: Every day with your kids should be filled with happiness
Science says: “In the last two decades, the family has undergone seismic cultural shifts, and one such shift is the push to spend more time, and more quality time, with our children,” says Lyubomirsky. But this has led to chronic levels of anxiety, can’t-keep-up perfectionism, and burnout. Research actually shows that there’s a difference between daily levels of happiness and the 10,000-foot view of the joy of having a family. While a number of studies that compare happiness and satisfaction levels of parents and non-parents find that parents are less happy, Lyubomirsky writes that when people are asked about their biggest regrets in life, not having children (or, more children) is bigger than having had them.
Boost your bliss: See the big picture. Adults who looked back on their relationships with their children suggest you ask yourself: “What are you doing to create lasting, loving relationships with your children when they are 5? 10? or 15?” They advise you see your children providing continuity, meaning, attachment, and greater purpose in life. You should also try to get away from your kids when you can; loving your children isn’t the same as loving parenting, especially when your kids are young.
Myth: A major crisis drains happiness more so than everyday annoyances
Science says: Although most of us believe that significant events, such as a car accident or a job layoff, can affect your happiness more than daily hassles, it turns out that the mundane has a bigger impact. Researchers say this is because we’re extremely motivated to reach out to our community when we are coping with crises, but we don’t seek social support for little things, like a kid’s temper tantrum or a terrible commute.
Boost your bliss: Address these seemingly small issues, counsels Lyubomirsky, by talking with friends, reframing events in a more positive light, or finding time to recharge and regenerate.
Myth: Once you hit a certain age, your best years are behind you
Science says: Although most people believe that happiness declines with age, Lyubomirsky says that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Three recent studies showed that the peak of positive emotional experience occurred at age 64, 65, and 79. “When we begin to recognize that our years are limited, we change our perspective about life,” she writes. “The shorter time horizon motivates us to become more present-oriented and to invest our time and effort into the things in life that really matter.”
Boost your bliss: Use your memories to boost—not detract from—your happiness. Research shows that people are happier when they relish and luxuriate in the positive memories of happy past events, but don’t try to dissect the details too much. On the other hand, deliberately analyzing painful memories (a bad breakup, a job layoff) to make sense of them and get past them increases happiness. Find out more fascinating truths about what should make you happy, but doesn’t—and what shouldn’t make you happy, but does—in The Myths of Happiness.