Mind & Body

Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy

Sunshine not always on your shoulders? Fear not. Here’s why a little melancholy is good for you.

Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy
Pin it Gary Taxali

Why a happiness mission won’t work But if happiness is really as easy to obtain as following a few how-to-be-happy bullet points, we would’ve obtained it by now, says Ezra Bayda, author of Beyond Happiness (Shambhala). “I don’t think we’re capable of letting go of things that stand between us and what we call ‘happiness,’ ” he says. “If we could let go of all the things that have hindered us in life, really let go, why wouldn’t we have done it already and why wouldn’t everyone be much happier right now?” James Coyne, Ph.D., professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says our pursuits for happiness are futile because of our unrealistic expectations. “In trying too hard to be happy, people sometimes fall into the trap of not accepting their own feelings,” says Coyne. “If you try too hard to be happy, you can make yourself miserable.” His advice? It’s better to focus on being authentic rather than trying to be happy even when you’re not. Coyne also believes there are real limits to how much we can really increase our happiness despite the theory that 40 percent of our happiness is within our control. That’s the myth of some of this “happy-ology,” according to Coyne. “If you do more of the things that make you feel good, you’ll feel even better. But at some point, there’s an adjustment,” he says, and you go back to your set point. In her book, The How of Happiness (Penguin Press), Sonja Lyubomirsky examines research on the happiness-boosting effect of marriage and money. One study showed that couples return to their happiness set point two years after the wedding. Other research shows that lottery winners feel what Lyubomirsky calls “no more happy than regular folks” less than a year after receiving the news.

My friend Christian, a 33-year-old education administrator from New Jersey, has never won the lottery, but when I told her about the two-year happiness effect of marriage, she said she could relate. Christian and her husband just celebrated their one-year anniversary, and she’s already noticing the mood adjustment. “For a while, it was like nothing could go wrong—at work or with my family,” she says. “When I had an impossible deadline or a hurtful conversation with my mom, I’d think about my husband and feel better. It’s not that I’m any less happy in my marriage, but it doesn’t provide the instant ‘everything’s all right’ boost that it once did. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m married. So what?’ Sometimes it’s even, ‘Now what?’ ” That “now what?” is what many experts say is part of our problem. When we achieve a happiness goal, we adapt and our aspirations rise yet again. Which is why the search for satisfaction can seem so relentless. The other thing, says Bayda, “is that in America, we’re born into a culture that guarantees happiness as an inalienable right. But it’s an illusion.” And when we’re chasing an illusion, we’re setting ourselves up for failure because we’re basing our own happiness on some cultural ideal that may or may not be achievable (white picket fence, 2.5 kids, four vacations a year, a hybrid car, a holistic diet—sound familiar?).

“One of the biggest myths about happiness is thinking that what makes someone else happy will make you happy,” says Bayda, and so we aren’t reliable judges of our own happiness. And because we all think it’s not OK to be unhappy, we look to any and all possible ways to get happy. Pronto. And it’s precisely this kind of aversion to unhappiness that has many of us leading inauthentic lives, says Julie Norem, Ph.D., Hamm Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books). “If you’re living a full, rich life, unhappiness, sadness, anxiety—they’re all going to be a part of it,” she says. As for the key to this “full, rich life,” Norem says it’s about engagement, which she defines as “not just feeling good at any given time, but being involved at any given time.” The word happiness, even the word satisfaction, implies a stopping point, whereas engagement is ongoing. “It’s not like you’re engaging in order to be satisfied, you’re engaging in order to do something. Doing that might bring satisfaction—but it’s not the end point or the ultimate goal.” But for many of us, a happiness goal is fraught with “shoulds,” like “I should be more upbeat,” “I should be looking on the bright side,” “I should be, well, happier.” Barbara Held, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, says this “should-ing” about happiness is a result of the tyranny of the positive attitude in America, which she describes as the pressure to act happy or, even worse, be happy when you’re not. Her bottom-line message: When it comes to happiness, one size doesn’t fit all. “There’s this erroneous expectation that if we just follow X, Y or Z steps, we can be happy all the time, and therefore we should be happy all the time. And if we’re not happy, it’s our fault and we’re defective,” she says. Not wanting to appear unhappy or talk in a way that will make anyone unhappy, those of us who aren’t always on the chipper side do the stiff-upper-lip thing, appearing to look on the sunny side even when we’re not. But it’s not always good for our true feelings to be kept in the closet, says Held.