Are you happy all the time? If Happiness were a person, he/she would not be happy. You see, everyone has their own view about what happiness should be, and sometimes having a ? happy face means you must be happy all the time. In fact, that is one of the questions I get asked most frequently – if you teach happiness, does it mean you are always happy? While it may seem logical to ask that, the reality is that I am not some robot that can be programmed to be happy. I am just human, like the rest of us. There are moments I feel happy (like when my daughter Zoey spontaneously draws me a “I love you” picture – see below) and sad (like when a friend says hurtful words to me).
This brings me to the main point: Happiness has been misunderstood. Perhaps it is a matter of the word itself that brings up certain images or creates certain assumptions in people. In this article, I hope to bust some myths surrounding this notion (or word).
Myth #1: Happiness = Emoji Happy
When people refer to happiness, they typically refer to the moments which make us smile – the positive emotions that we experience. While this is most relatable, if you dig deeper, you may find that that is only one aspect of happiness. In Martin Seligman’s (2011) book Flourish, he details how there are 5 pathways to happiness: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning & Achievement (PERMA, for short).
Expanding on that, then, happiness carries a broader definition that includes both uplifting experiences (e.g. excitement, being in love, intrinsic motivation) and challenging experiences (e.g. forgiveness, vulnerability, striving for a goal). For instance, I recently set a goal to run and complete a 10K run. Now, if you know me, you’ll know I HATE RUNNING. I did not enjoy most parts of the experience (especially the part where my legs felt like they were on fire ?), yet when I ran past the finish line, I had a big smile on my face from actually completing it! That kind of happiness isn’t the emoji type of happiness. It is a deeper, more resonant happiness – the kind that people sometimes forget to think about when they see the smiley face. And it was a combination of both the uplifting and challenging parts of the experiences that led to that.
Myth #2: Happiness is a pursuit
In the US Declaration of Independence, the line “pursuit of happiness” is clearly etched. Similarly, in the Singapore pledge, the line “so as to achieve happiness” is something we recite. It frames happiness as something we need to chase, an ideal we should be aiming towards. The irony is that if you spoke to Happiness, he/she would say: Happiness is a journey. It requires intention, effort and action. In other words, we do have to work on our own happiness and not simply pursue it just because it’s the norm to do so. Also, it being a pursuit can create unnecessary pressure – what happens if you don’t get it?
In fact, implementing that kind of “be happy all the time” or “happiness is what you should be aiming for” mentality breeds a kind of toxic positivity that goes against what I believe. Also, you likely will need more and more stimuli to keep you feeling happier – what psychologists Brickman & Campbell (1971) call the hedonic treadmill.
Instead, what may be better is to recognise that life comprises both ups and downs. When the good comes, we celebrate and appreciate. When the bad comes, we allow ourselves to pause, acknowledge the challenge, then take one step at a time to resume the journey. Using this approach, there is no chase or pursuit; It is more of a process of introspection, learning, action and growth.
Myth #3: Happiness is a bonus.
When I share with people that I speak and run workshops on happiness, most cheer for me, some are curious, while there is a small sliver of the population whose eyes gloss over or…. they do this ?. To them, happiness is not even something in their radar – it is an unnecessary bonus & just not important to them. Their main concern is getting through life, making a living, full stop. It is almost as if believing in happiness is unrealistic and even, to a certain extend, unattainable. My concern here is viewing happiness as a bonus means it gets taken for granted.
Now, let’s use working out as an analogy. If getting fit is your priority, you would need to exercise regularly, perhaps get enough sleep and possibly watch what you eat. Taking these steps would more likely lead to you experiencing some kind of progress and success. Telling yourself “I’m too tired” or “I’ve worked too hard today to exercise” is not going to get you fit. In other words, if it is a priority, you would take it seriously and make it a part of your life. In Sonja Lyubomirsky & colleagues’ (2011) research, they found that participants who believed that happiness was important, deliberately chose to complete “happiness increasing” exercises and put more effort into the activities. As a result, they showed bigger gains in well-being and happiness. I strongly believe happiness shouldn’t be put to the wayside. Happiness is a fundamental ingredient for us to have a life worth living, and for us to keep going.
Myth #4: Happiness is fluffy.
When I say the word happiness, sometimes images of unicorns ?, rainbows ? and ice-cream ?appear in people’s minds. It seems like such a fluffy thing that is at once intangible and hard to grasp. Yet having been a student of happiness for so many years, I can confidently say that there is nothing fluffy about it. You only have to look at the huge body of research that has been around for decades, to recognise that happiness is serious business. In fact, I spent a year undertaking a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (the scientific study of well-being & happiness) at the University of Pennsylvania.
One area where there is extensive research is in the study of gratitude. Robert Emmons’s (professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis) research has found that gratitude is strongly & consistently associated with greater happiness. Further research at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre found that expressing gratitude regularly changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the grey matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. Furthermore, gratitude helps people relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
In essence, happiness is not fluffy – it is supported by a body of rigorous evidence-based research. Now, given that our time and energy are scarce, we can rely on the research to inform how we can boost our happiness. This ensures that we are not wasting our time trying out all kinds of strategies, only to find that they are not effective.
Myth #5: Someone owes us happiness.
“I’m not happy because I grew up in a poor household.” “I’m not happy because I’m not rich.” “I am not smart like you!” These are some of the common reasons people give me to explain why they are not happy. While I don’t deny that some circumstances make it more challenging to find happiness (like living a war torn country, or extreme poverty), I also notice that many people tend to find reasons to not be happy, or allow circumstances to compromise their happiness.
Take for example, Jasmine (not her real name). I met Jasmine at one of my training sessions at her workplace. She said that she had left her previous workplace because of a toxic boss. She thought that by moving away from the environment, she would feel better, but somehow the effects of the boss’s words lingered. In her new workplace, she was so afraid to be chastised by her new boss that she obsessed about getting things right, to the point where she worked late nights, and sometimes handed in work late. As a result, she was constantly tense, miserable and exhausted. She blamed her new boss for not being understanding, and her colleagues for not helping her transition. By the time I met her, she was angry and resentful. In her words, “It’s not my fault that no one values me!”
In this case, Jasmine was stuck in a thinking trap: Blaming others. In doing so, she had outsourced her happiness to the circumstance she was in. Also, because she didn’t take any responsibility for the situation, no corrective action was taken to make things better. As such, even though she had tried to escape from the toxic environment, she still wasn’t able to be happier. What I’m trying to say is that no one owes us happiness – it is in our own hands.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky (2019), there are 3 contributing factors to happiness: our genetics, circumstances and intentional actions. Time and again, she and her colleagues have proven that we can take steps towards increasing our own happiness by doing intentional activities. For example, one could perform random acts of kindness, savour positive moments or meditate mindfully. In this way, we take ownership over aspects of our life that we can improve, or make better. No one owes us our own happiness!
So there you have it! 5 Happiness Myths busted.. once and for all. Hopefully as you read through them, you might recognise how, in some way, you may have started to take one (or some of them) as truth. I know that I have. In fact, growing up I was a blamer – at first, it was my parents, then it was how short I was, then it was the fact that I wasn’t pretty & rich.. the list can go on and on. Now, having understood the science, and actually practising it in my daily life, I have become more aware of what Happiness truly is.
In conclusion, please know that Happiness is LEGIT! Do take it seriously, don’t misunderstand it, and take steps towards increasing your own happiness.
About the writer:
Sha-En is the 1st Singaporean graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been featured on multiple media platforms, including TV documentary ‘Chasing Happiness’, Business Times & radio MONEY 89.3FM. As the founder of Happiness Scientists, Sha-En has trained more than 10,000 people in schools & organizations in the research and practice of Positive Psychology. A professional speaker, she has spoken at the 1st Positive Psychology Conference in the Philippines & World Congress on Positive Psychology 2019 in Melbourne. She recently did her first TEDx talk at the TEDxSalon in Singapore.