Happiness Myths

Why is it important to pinpoint happiness myths?
Part of learning how something is or what something looks like is learning what it isn’t or what it doesn’t look like. In the particular case of happiness, we must navigate countless culture-pervading myths and ideologies that stand to mislead us on our quest for a happy, joyful, meaningful life.
So, let’s do this. And let’s start with the basics: money.

Money

You’ve probably heard the saying “Money doesn’t buy happiness” or even heard someone radically say “Money does buy happiness.” As with most things, we encourage you to resist this false dichotomy.
In fact, according to what research shows us thus far, money buys some happiness, and mainly a certain type. (2,4) We’ll get to this more later.
One interesting discovery, is that happiness buys money, or more accurately, happy people are relatively more gifted at earning more. (1)
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 level of happiness. So, money can make us much happier if it keeps us from being poor. However, being poor is not necessarily causal for not being happy. Loads of people in very poor conditions throughout the world are quite happy. It’s a strong current to swim against, and, it is not impossible.
If you are poor, it’s probably helpful toward your happiness to obtain more money. It will give you more stability and flexibility, helping you do the necessary things of life better.
But wealth does not mean happiness. Once your basic needs are met, money has remarkably less of an effect. A Princeton study a few years ago pinpointed an ‘optimal income level for happiness’ in the United States at a $75,000 salary for a family of 4. (2)
There’s an important issue within that study that was largely missed in the many articles and blogs that followed: 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. (3) 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?). (4)
Money helps us get the essential things we need, enabling happiness. Then money helps convince us we’re happy when we try to measure it in our lives. That’s it.
Let’s keep those limitations in mind as we’re barraged by the media praising money as a cure-all.
Update: Recent research stresses how much money CAN help life satisfaction (not does). View Article

Relationships

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.
Any 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. (5)
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. (6)
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 higher happiness levels than divorced, separated, or widowed. When compared with always-single people, there is no real difference. (7)
Furthermore, we are faced with the delineation between evaluated and experienced happiness. Again, there is little difference shown between married vs. single people, and women in particular might report lower daily happiness than their single woman peers. (8)
It’s true that solid, caring relationships are generally beneficial toward happiness. The more time you spend with close friends, the likelier you are to feel happy and think of your life as happy. (9) And, marriage is not the only form that this connection can take. We would do well to all expect a bit less from marriage and savor our friendships.

Having Children

Kids will make me happy, won’t they?
Actually, there are a number of studies that have compared the happiness and satisfaction levels of parents vs. non-parents, covering a diversity of ages and life circumstances, and…guess what…parents are generally less happy. (10)(11)
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. (12)
The reason the joy of 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 and the toll they take on our happiness 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 had to do with the different between Happiness vs. Joy. This distinction is so overlooked and important that we made a page to explain it further.
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 life satisfaction, bringing a sense of purpose to the toil. (14)

Old Age

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. (13)
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 happiness and memory. One thing is apparent, though. Our ways of reflecting on the past are both a reflection of our happiness and a source of our happiness. We would do well to remember this. If it is within our power to pragmatically think fondly of our current life compared with our pasts, knowing that it will help us feel happier, then it is a sound habit to build upon.
When we replay unhappy times in our mind, it’s wise to think of them analytically with as much detachment as possible, and when we replay happy times, it helps to bask in the recollection and gratitude over the experience, without comparing it to the present moment or stage of life.
Furthermore, focusing on concrete future goals that align with our inner values and priorities is a full-proof method for savoring life’s opportunities at any age.
References:

1. Diener, E., et al. (2002) Dispositional affect and job outcomes. SIR, 59, 229-59.

2. Kahneman and Deaton, PNAS 2010 September, 107 (38) 16489-16493

3. 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.

4. Kahneman and Deaton, PNAS 2010 September, 107 (38) 16489-16493 See ch. 6 note 267

5. Lucas, R. E. et al. (2003) Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status

6. Fisher, H. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian relationships.

7. Haring-Hidore, M., et  al. (1985). Marital status and subjective well-being: A research synthesis.

8. Krueger, A. B., et al. (2009). Time use and subjective well-being in France and the U.S.

9. Baumeister & Leary (1995), The need to belong: Desire for inter-personal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.

10. Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review.

11. Glenn, N. D., & Weaver, C. N. (1979). A note on family situation and global happiness.

12. Kahneman, D., et al. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method.

13. Mitchell et al. (1997), op. cit. (See ch. 6, note 285).

14. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/when_is_parenting_all_joy_and_no_fun