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Do you ever have those moments when you are just sitting there doing nothing much and you start pondering the big questions in life?  Well, I had one of those moments for other day and my big question was, “what makes people happy?”  Maybe it’s because a lot of people I talk to tell me that they just want to be happy. This is very common, whenever people are surveyed as to what they most want in life,  they often list happiness as one of their top desires.  So with this burning question I went to my bookcase, yes, I’m a bit old school, I  still like the feel and look of a book.

My main take-away from this was that one of the main reasons we don’t feel happier is because we buy into certain traps or myths about happiness that stops us from being happy or put us on the wrong path to happiness.

The most common myths that prevent us from being happy are:

Myth 1. Happiness is the natural state and is only about feeling good

The first myth suggests happiness is the only emotion we should experience and that it’s only about seeking pleasure. Yes, admittedly pleasure feels good, but do we really want to be pleasuring ourselves all day, every day? What would we miss if all we sought was pleasure?

In reality, there are a range of emotions, both positive and negative.  Which ones we experience depend on the situation.  Our emotions also change constantly throughout the day, going up and down like gentle rolling waves.  To live a rich, meaningful life we need to experience the full range of emotions. Imagine never feeling angry, sad or worried.  These emotions have their place, but it’s about balance.

Happiness is also only one of the positive emotions that we experience. Some of the most common ones include pride, awe, serenity, hope, inspiration, gratitude, interest, love, hope, and amusement. Just think how rich these experiences make our life.

Myth 2. If you are not happy there is something wrong with you  

The second myth says that if you are not happy all of the time than there is something wrong with you and you need to do something about it, whether that be to buy something, change something or take medication.

Due to social media obsession with happiness, it can seem everyone is blissfully happy all the time.  Ask yourself this, is it really possible to be happy all the time? Imagine what it would be like to be over the moon happy day in day out. When we are happy we are energetic, being excessively elated is like being high on happiness.  That sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? It’s simply not healthy for us to experience happiness or intense elation all the time.

On the reverse side, experiencing very low feelings of positivity is also not helpful. People who experience very little or no happiness feel miserable, negative and are at risk of developing depression and experience poorer health.

Happiness is about balance, experiencing more positive than negative feelings and accepting that sometimes it’s okay and even necessary to experience negative emotions.  It’s also important to accept that even people who seem happy all the time go through changes in emotion and they also experience stress or difficult feelings. No one is truly happy all the time. These people are more likely to be able to bounce back to being happy. This is an important concept to learn so you don’t put too much pressure on yourself when you see others who seem happier than you.

Life is not easy, it can be hard and challenging at times and at these times it’s important to experience appropriate emotions such as disappointment, worry,  sadness or anger.  Can you imagine never being worried about someone you love or being disappointed when something hasn’t turned out as we hoped? These are natural emotions that occur in response to normal everyday experiences that teach us something about life and help us to make changes for the better.

Myth 3. I will be happy when…….

The third myth says I’m not happy now but when I achieve or obtain a certain thing I will be happy. Common examples of this are obtaining a promotion, going on a holiday, changing jobs, earning more money, getting married, having kids, buying a house, losing weight or looking a certain way. It’s common to fall into the trap of thinking we’ll be happy only when everything in our lives is the way we want it to be. This is why people often think they will be happy if they obtain success, status, beauty, approval, material goods or more money.  We seek these things to makes us feel good, to validate us, or make us feel whole and complete.

Many of these things do make us happy, but once we reach a certain level they no longer make us happy, the positive feelings only last for a short time, or we soon start wanting more to make us feel complete.  These things don’t create real and lasting happiness, so happiness becomes this mysterious thing we want but can’t seem to obtain or hold onto.  Positive emotions such as happiness tend to be short lived. The positive feeling we receive when we obtain these things dissipates over time and people then start to think there must be something wrong because their happiness didn’t last.

So, despite being conditioned to believe that by “having it all” we will be happy, the reverse is actually true.  People who have lots of money or success are not generally happier than ‘us’ average people.   We are socially conditioned to believe this myth and it’s supported by the media and advertising. As a consequence, we are always looking to success, material goods or beauty to make us happy.  However, the more we have, the less happier we are because materialism distracts people from meaningful goals such as nurturing relationships with others and enjoying what is happening in the present.

Another factor that supports this myth is something called the hedonic treadmill. Hedonic refers to pleasure.  Basically, what happens is we get used to the familiar things in our life and start to feel dissatisfied. This happens because we no longer take notice of the familiar and the positive ways they make us feel.  Because of this, we seek change, as change provides us with an opportunity for reward, which in turn makes us feel good.  Due to this we constantly end up chasing something better but the end is never in sight, hence the reference to a treadmill.

Myth 4. I can’t be happy when…… /  if……..

The fourth myth says if certain things are present in my life, it’s not possible to be happy. Common examples of this are having a medical condition, going through a divorce, or experiencing a loss or trauma. When these things happen we tend to think we will be unhappy forever as the pain is difficult to deal with and we focus on what we have lost.

Just as we are good at adapting to positive things we can also adapt to negative things. People cope with difficult life situations such as disability, severe illness, trauma, divorce and all the time and become happier than they initially were. Many people also say the experience helped them learn what was important in life, or that it changed their life for the better. What this shows us is that events are not as catastrophic as we think they are and that we can adjust to adversity.

My take away message from this is that happiness a choice.

Think about your own attempts to be happy, what are some of the myths that you’ve been trapped by, that don’t allow you to make a choice to be happy?

How are you going to start thinking differently about happiness?