Although platitudes on bumper stickers or Instagram quote cards may sound nice, their ideas can become lodged in our minds without being substantiated in science. Research shows that there can be a gap between what truly makes you happy and what you think makes you happy. Understanding these common misconceptions, and learning from them can help you cultivate more happiness in your life.
1. “I’ll be happy when _____________ (fill in the blank).”
Truth: The reality is that whether it be a dream home or something else, many of us are waiting for happiness. We fervently (and erroneously) believe that if we’re not happy now, we will be happy when we find Mr. Right, strike it rich, or buy our dream car. The truth is, happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a practice. Much like fitness, becoming lastingly happier requires regular effort and commitment.
Try this: There are many things in your life that you can’t control, and there are some things you can, one of which is your mind and thoughts. Try to train your brain to focus on the present moment because looking to the past or the future can take you out of the present moment and out of happiness. When you notice your mind wander, try to bring it back to the now by looking around and noticing the things you appreciate, are grateful for, or that make you happy.
2. “Once you put a ring on it, you’ll live happily ever after.”
Truth: While it’s true that there’s often a boost in happiness when you get married, it doesn’t last very long. Several studies have found that marriage has a surprisingly small impact on long-term happiness, and after the fun and excitement of a wedding wears off, most newlyweds revert to their pre-engagement happiness level.
It turns out that it’s not simply marriage that makes people happy. If a couple isn’t happy going into their marriage, chances are the union isn’t going to be their golden ticket. Also, staying in an unhappy marriage because you think it will make you happier is a myth. Research has shown that people who are in unhappy marriages experience a spike in their happiness once their marriage is dissolved.
Try this: Marriage or not, focus on your own happiness and the happiness of your partner. One way to do this is to celebrate the good. Research indicates that the most intimate and trusting relationships are distinguished by how partners respond to good news, not by how they react to disappointing or bad news. For example, if your partner shares that he got a big promotion, be sure to celebrate with enthusiastic joy; talk about the great things about the promotion and how it will benefit your relationship. If your partner shares that he got a new job that requires him to work weekends, try to highlight the good things that will come from the new job as much as possible, and give less attention to the downsides.
3. “In life, the goal is to be happy and to not feel sad.”
Truth: Happiness comes part and parcel with sadness. Happiness and sadness aren’t opposites - they’re simply different emotions. It’s completely normal to be a happy person and to also feel sad sometimes. The goal is not to eliminate sadness or other challenging emotions. Research shows that, paradoxically, when you give yourself permission to feel anxiety, anger, or sadness (instead of bottling up or ignoring challenging emotions), you often end up experiencing more happiness.
Try this: You can’t suppress the experience of painful emotions, so don’t try to push them away or bottle them up. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling (no judgement). Whatever emotions come up for you, aim to feel them fully, then, let them go.
4. “Landing your dream job is your ticket to happiness.”
Truth: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to do things that you love; after all, who doesn’t want a career that pays the bills and is fulfilling? The problem is that having an idealized view of what constitutes a perfect job can wind up leading you away from work you love, instead of toward it, when your expectations don’t match your reality.
People adapt to all experiences, and so any happiness from a new work environment will likely fade over time. Also, we are all constantly growing and changing, and sometimes, so are our interests. A dream job isn’t an exact destination, rather it’s constantly evolving, just like you. Your ideal job when you were in your 20’s may be very different from what it is in your 30’s or 50’s.
Try this: Remember that passion won’t always pay the bills—and that’s OK! The key to finding your dream job is being able to distinguish the achievable from the fairy tale and to recognize what it means to you to be fulfilled from a practical (and not just a passionate) standpoint. Be open to the possibilities of new things and embrace opportunities you encounter. This will help you to be sure that you don’t pass up worthwhile work in a hopeless pursuit of an elusive ideal.
Dr. Gillian Mandich
Dr. Gillian Mandich has a PhD in Health Science from Western University. She a happiness researcher, the founder of The International Happiness Institute of Health Science Research; co-lead investigator of The Canadian Happiness At Work Study; and is a part of the Meant2Prevent research team at SickKids. Dr. Mandich is a media personality, two-time TEDx speaker, and top-rated keynote speaker.
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