Part of learning about something is learning what it isn’tIn the particular case of ‘happiness,’ we must navigate countless culture-pervading myths and ideologies that stand to mislead us on our quest for a well-lived life.

So let’s take a look at a few of the most prevailing Myths out there on ‘Happiness.’

‘Happiness’ is Simple

You may have had the experience of reading an inspiring comic, hearing a famous quote, or watching a TED talk that summed up life and its challenges eloquently.

“Life is simply about…”
“All you really have to do to be happy is…”

There is a time and place for generalities. And it can be comforting to be reminded that we’re over-complicating things. However, ‘happiness’ isn’t simple. And that is ok.

For starters, ‘Happiness’ is a broken concept.
We hear that word used to describe a feeling, one’s overall well-being or satisfaction with life, and everything in between. Yet we know that a well-lived life isn’t simply a life of Netflix binging.

It’s important to approach your journey to greater well-being with humility and a willingness to be confused and face unknowns. And the science would agree with you. It’s only been a handful of decades, with the advent of Positive Psychology, that humans have used science in an attempt to qualify and quantify a well-lived life. And the results so far are complicated.

By now, there are a number of models of well-being. From different researchers and thinkers, we can see a multitude of methods for approaching the topic of human ‘happiness,’ and though some consistent, obvious patterns emerge from the noise (meaning matters, for example), there are still innumerable questions. Psychologists will be busy researching human well-being for lifetimes to come.

You can learn about some of the leading models of well-being in positive psych here:

The above comic highlights a powerful tool for one’s well-being toolbelt, Perspective, but as we read the comic we can feel that there’s so much more to this—it’s much easier said than done.

There is a reason why you’ll find such breadth and depth across this website. There is a good reason why we ALL need therapy. A well-lived life is a journey of practice and discovery.

It may be hard to paint a clear picture of ‘happiness,’ especially with all the noise out there. But that is why you’re here. The model of well-being found here, the Landscape of Meaning, the Bliss Map (for work)…these frameworks can massively help sort signal from noise. So rest assured. You’re in the right place.

Ok. Now that the foundational myth is covered, let’s get into some of the more explicit myths about well-being we find in the world.

Money Does/Doesn’t Buy ‘Happiness’

You’ve probably heard the saying “Money doesn’t buy happiness” or even heard someone radically say “Money does buy happiness.” Here as well as everywhere else, you are encouraged to disregard this false dichotomy.

In fact, according to what research shows us thus far, money buys some happiness, and mainly a certain type. (Kahneman 2010) We’ll get to this more later.

One interesting discovery is that happiness buys money, or more accurately, ‘happy’ people are relatively prone to earning more income. (Diener 2002)

What’s the Key with Money?

The truth is that when our basic needs for adequate food, safety, health, and shelter are not secured, money can make a great deal of difference in our well-being. So, money is likely to make us much ‘happier’ if it keeps us from being poor. However, being poor is not necessarily causal to not being ‘happy.’ Loads of people in very poor conditions throughout the world are satisfied with their lives.
It’s a strong current to swim against, and, it is not impossible.

If you are living in poverty, it’s probably helpful for your overall well-being to obtain more money. It will give you more stability and flexibility, helping you do the necessary things of life better.

On the other hand, wealth is not a one-way ticket to well-being. Once your basic needs are met, money has remarkably less of an effect. A Princeton study from 2010 pinpointed an ‘optimal income level for happiness’ in the United States at a $75,000 salary for a family of 4. (Kahneman 2010) And since then, a range of numbers above and below have been offered by various research. Researchers are refining this average for each state in the U.S. (Jebb 2018) No matter what the numbers offer, it is clear that one’s point of diminishing returns on income is highly personal—different for each of us depending on a range of factors both internal and external.

A pressing issue that goes missed in many of these studies is this: This high income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being.

Sonja Lyubomirsky said it well in her book The Myths of Happiness:

The relationship between happiness and money only holds for a certain kind of happiness. When people are asked to consider how happy or satisfied they are in general, those with more money report being happier and more satisfied. But when people are asked how happy they are moment to moment in their daily lives–e.g., “how joyful, stressed, angry, affectionate, and sad were you yesterday?” –then those with more money are hardly more likely to have experienced happy feelings. This pattern of results suggests that wealth makes us happy when we are thinking about our lives (“Am I happy over-all? Well, I’m making a good living”), but money has a much smaller impact on our feelings as we actually live our lives (“Am I happy today?).

Having money can help convince us we’re ‘happy’ when we step back and try to size up our lives. Hopefully the more nuanced research finds its way to mainstream media (it is trickling in). For now, it behooves us to keep that limitation in mind as we’re barraged by the media praising money as a cure-all.

And, it’s once again not that simple. The division between life satisfaction and ‘happy’ feelings is an important one, but probably still too over-generalized. The studies mentioned by Lyubomirsky leave out Money’s role in well-being with the full nuance of well-being.

Money is an Enabler

The best way to think about Money, as it relates to well-being, is as an enabler. It makes things possible. We need it to be possible to afford food, shelter, and necessities. Money, then, can also enable meaningful pursuits like having children and sending them to a good school.
And, money can enable shallower aspects of well-being too. In this modern world of material abundance, money can enable our getting caught up in Ephemeral Pleasures, seeking well-being from things rather than experiences.

Money CAN help us with Discovery and Expression, give us time to be of Service, make intimate Love easier with less strain and more time together, and provide more time to make friends and do fun things with them. Money can free us from “daily tasks,” helping us with more momentary happiness (and time) — laundry, cleaning house, cooking, eating out, doing taxes, etc.
It can also sequester our attention and consume our time. We may chase it like an ever-fleeting light at the end of a tunnel.

So there it is: money helps us get the essential things we need, enabling well-being. And, it isn’t simple.

As with many such Enablers, there is a section on this site exploring the ins and outs of Money, offering practice, exercises, and more. Related is the section on Peace and Security and how they relate to well-being. Go check them out:

Bonus: check out this infographic about the best way to spend one’s money to optimize for well-being.

Relationships: I Need to be Married to be ‘Happy’

I’ll finally be happy when I am married to the right person.
I can’t be happy now that we broke up.
If I don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend or get married, how can I ever be happy?

Go and ask someone who is married, “Did society prepare you for what to expect from marriage?” You’ll hear a resounding “no.”
The truth about marriage is…it’s hard to know until you try. And yet, the myth is so prevalent: to live a ‘happy’ life, be happily married.

One of the more famous studies on happiness and marriage found that although the average person’s happiness is boosted after being married, the boost only lasts about two years, then returns to pre-engagement levels. (Lucas 2003)

This reflects the big misconception we have about marriage: long-term committed relationships do not reflect the passion and excitement of new love affairs. They are very different. Study after study has shown that long-term relationships do not hold the dreamy passion that we imagine and hope they will. (Fisher 1998)

Our romance with the idea of romance has led us to misunderstand the function, complexity, and typical life course of marriage, leaving us disappointed when our marriages don’t constantly fulfill our longings for passion, satisfaction, intimacy, and permanence. As we reflect on our experiences of boredom or waning passion or petty dissatisfaction in our current partnerships, we should reexamine these assumptions and establish the extent to which our experiences may simply be manifestations of an extraordinarily ordinary process. — from Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky p. 21

Now, about being single. Most people in the U. S. get married. By and large, when asked “Are you happy overall?” these married people tend to report slightly higher life satisfaction than divorced, separated, or widowed. When compared with always-single people, there is no real difference. (Harding 1985)

Furthermore, we are faced with the delineation between evaluated and experienced well-being. Again, there is little difference shown between married vs. single people, and women, in particular, might report lower daily satisfaction than their single woman peers. (Krueger 2009)

The truth is that relationships ARE the single greatest predictor we have for life satisfaction and well-being. Good social relationships are even a predictor for greater longevity. (Kern 2013) But that doesn’t refer to only marriage. Friendships, for example, could matter even more. (Baumeister 1995) Marriage is only one of many forms that connection and relating to others can take. We would all do well to expect a bit less from marriage and focus on the big picture with every kind of relationship we have: surrounding ourselves with positive meaningful relationships of all kinds.

Relationships are crucial. As in the Landscape of Meaning model, people are like the branches that frame our experiences, especially meaningful ones.
There are many sections of this site that help us understand and practice the importance of relationships. Go check them out:

Love is one of the 4 Cornerstones of Meaning. There, you’ll find sections on a handful of essential aspects relating to other people.

Having Children Will/Won’t Make Me Happy

Kids will make me ‘happy,’ won’t they?

Actually, there are a number of studies that have compared the life satisfaction levels of parents vs. non-parents, covering a diversity of ages and life circumstances, and…guess what…parents are generally less happy. (Twenge 2003)(Glenn 1979)

In another well-known study, working mothers in Texas, when asked to reflect on the previous day, reported spending time with their children to be only slightly more enjoyable than commuting and housework. (Kahneman 2004)

The reason that having children isn’t all it’s cracked up to be is broad and simple: it’s tedious. Both in our own reflection and in societal myths, we underestimate small problems, the time they take, and the toll they take on our well-being when they repeat. Pain and distress can be far more drastic, although less memorable, from the smaller problems in life.

Caring for children is a lot of work. It’s no wonder that it isn’t a yellow-brick road to ‘happiness.’

But the biggest misunderstanding here has to do with the difference between Happiness vs. Joy. This distinction is crucial. Having kids is not a happy thing, especially when you’re actively parenting. But it IS an effective recipe for a joyful life. The difference is Meaning. If you have kids, you can have family who is there for you into your old age. Again…positive relationships.

Generally speaking, having children brings a person more joy. It adds meaning and purpose to their life. Even if constantly changing diapers or frantically tending to a child’s school schedule may be a hindrance to immediate well-being (happiness), it boosts overall life satisfaction and well-being in the long run, bringing a sense of purpose to the toil.
And, as usual, it isn’t a simple dichotomy. The hard work of raising children can be both purposeful AND fun. It is vibrant and lively, and a complicated spectrum that changes frequently—within the hour, the day, the week, the year. Family and children are more of a dynamic swirl on one’s well-being than boxes.

Old Age Will Be An Unhappy Time

There is a phenomenon called rosy recollection. It’s when we recall past events and periods of our lives more positively than they were in fact experienced. In a few studies where people were tracked before, during, and after going on challenging yet anticipated camping trips, almost unanimously the trips were full of disappointment and gloom, yet were fondly recalled after the fact. (Mitchell 1997)

This is the operating paradox of judging the best years of our lives: once they’re over, we seem to forget how imperfect they were.

It is difficult to tease out the intricacies of well-being and memory. One thing is apparent, though. Our ways of reflecting on the past are both a reflection of our well-being and a source of it.
When we recount unhappy memories it’s wise habit to think fondly of the challenges we’ve overcome, with healthy detachment. And when we replay happy times, it helps to bask in and savor the recollection with gratitude, without comparing it to the present moment or stage of life.

Elderly populations, in general, report surprising levels of psychological well-being, in no small part because of their Perspective: they find that once they are there, old age isn’t as bad as they expected, and their distant pasts are less of a burden than they thought they would be in middle age. (Laaksonen 2016)(Bishop 2011)

Some Snippets of Myths from The Week

References

  • Jebb, A.T., Tay, L., Diener, E. et al. Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world. Nat Hum Behav 2, 33–38 (2018).
    https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0277-0
  • Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R.E. et al. Dispositional Affect and Job Outcomes. Social Indicators Research 59, 229–259 (2002).
    https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1019672513984
  • Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(38), 16489–16493.
    https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1011492107
  • Diener, E., et al. (2010). Wealth and happiness across the world: Material prosperity predicts life evaluation, whereas psychosocial prosperity predicts positive feeling. JPSP, 99, 52-61.
  • Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(3), 527–539.
    https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.3.527
  • Fisher H. E. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.), 9(1), 23–52.
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-998-1010-5
  • Harding-hidore, M. & Stock, William & Okun, Morris & Witter, Robert. (1985). Marital Status and Subjective Well-Being: A Research Synthesis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 47. 10.2307/352338.
  • Krueger, A.B., Kahneman, D., Fischler, C. et al. Time Use and Subjective Well-Being in France and the U.S.. Soc Indic Res 93, 7–18 (2009).
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-008-9415-4
  • Kern, M.L., Della Porta, S.S. and Friedman, H.S. (2014), Personality, Flourishing, and Longevity. J Pers, 82: 472-484. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12062
  • Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
    https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497
  • Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 574–583.
    https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00574.x
  • Glenn, N. D., & Weaver, C. N. (1979). A note on family situation and global happiness. Social Forces, 57(3), 960–967.
    https://doi.org/10.2307/2577364
  • Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: the day reconstruction method. Science (New York, N.Y.), 306(5702), 1776–1780.
    https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1103572
  • Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal Adjustments in the Evaluation of Events: The “Rosy View”. Journal of experimental social psychology, 33(4), 421–448.
    https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1997.1333
  • Laaksonen, S. A Research Note: Happiness by Age is More Complex than U-Shaped. J Happiness Stud 19, 471–482 (2018).
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-016-9830-1
  • Bishop, A. J., & Martin, P. (2011). The measurement of life satisfaction and happiness in old-old age. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield (Eds.), Understanding well-being in the oldest old (pp. 290–331). Cambridge University Press.
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511920974.018