Nearly all of us buy into what I call the myths of happiness—beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, divorce, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. Overwhelming research evidence, however, reveals that there is no magic formula for happiness and no sure course toward misery. Rather than bringing lasting happiness or misery in themselves, major life moments and crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change. Yet how you greet these moments really matters.
I’ll Be Happy When I’m Married to the Right Person
One of the most pervasive happiness myths is the notion that we’ll be happy when we find that perfect romantic partner—when we say “I do.” The false promise is not that marriage won’t make us happy. For the great majority of individuals, it will. The problem is that marriage—even when initially perfectly satisfying—will not make us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we believe it will. Indeed, studies show that the happiness boost from marriage lasts an average of only two years. Unfortunately, when those two years are up and fulfilling our goal to find the idea partner hasn’t made us as happy as we expected, we often feel there must be something wrong with us or we must be the only ones to feel this way.
I Can’t Be Happy When My Relationship Has Fallen Apart
When a committed relationship falls apart, our reaction is often supersized. Fear of divorce is especially acute: We feel that we can never be happy again, that our life as we know it is now over. However, people are remarkably resilient, and research shows that the low point in happiness occurs a couple years before the divorce. As soon as four years after the break of a troubled marriage, people are significantly happier than they ever had been during the union.
I Need a Partner
Many of us are positive that not having a partner would make us miserable forever. However, multiple studies show that single people are no less happy than married ones, and that singles have been found to enjoy great happiness and meaning in other relationships and pursuits. Unfortunately, believing in this myth may be toxic: Not recognizing the power of resilience and the rewards of singlehood (such as more time to spend with friends or engaging in solo projects and adventures) may lead us to settle for a poor romantic match.
Landing My Dream Job Will Make Me Happy
At the root of this happiness myth is the misconception that, although we’re not happy now, we’ll surely be happy when land that dream job. We encounter a problem, however, when acquiring that seemingly perfect job doesn’t make us as happy as we expected and when that happiness is ever so brief. What explains this unwelcome experience is the inexorable process of hedonic adaptation—namely, the fact that human beings have the remarkable capacity to grow habituated or inured to most life changes. Unfortunately, if we are convinced that a certain kind of job would make us happy (and it doesn’t), then misunderstanding the power of hedonic adaptation may compel us to jettison perfectly good careers. Hence, a critical first step is to understand that everyone becomes habituated to the novelty, excitement, and challenges of a new job or venture. This new awareness will suggest to us an alternative explanation for our occupational malaise. To wit, there may be nothing wrong with the job or with our motivation or with our work ethic. The fact may be that we are simply experiencing a naturally occurring, all-too-human process.
I’ll Be Happy When I’m Rich and Successful
Many of us fervently believe that, if we’re not happy now, we’ll be happy when we’ve finally made it—when we have reached a certain level of prosperity and success. However, when that happiness proves elusive or short-lived, we weather mixed emotions, letdown, and even depression. When we’ve achieved—at least on paper—much of what we have always wanted to achieve, life can become dull and even empty. There is little around the corner to look forward to. Many prosperous and successful individuals don’t understand this natural process of adaptation, and may come to the conclusion that they need even more money to be truly happy. They do not realize that the key to buying happiness is not in how successful we are, but perhaps what we do with our success; it’s not how high our income is, but how we allocate it.
I Will Never Recover from a Dire Medical Diagnosis
When our worst fears about our health are realized, we can’t imagine getting beyond the crying and despairing stage. We can’t imagine experiencing happiness again. Yet our reactions and forebodings about this worst-case scenario are governed by one of the myths of happiness. Much can be done in the face of positive test results to increase the chances that our time living with illness will not be all misery and purposelessness—indeed, that it can be a time of growth and meaning—with hundreds of studies to substantiate it.
Science shows that we have the power to decide what our experience is and isn’t. Consider that during every minute of your day, you are choosing to pay attention to some things and opting to ignore, overlook, suppress, or withdraw from most other things. What you choose to focus on becomes part of your life and the rest falls out. You may have a chronic illness, for example, and you can spend most of your days dwelling on how it has ruined your life, or you can spend your days focusing on your gym routine, or getting to know your nieces, or connecting to your spiritual side. We can change our lives simply by changing our attitudes of mind.
The Best Years of My Life Are Over
Whether we are young, middle-aged, or old, the great majority of us believe that happiness declines with age, falling more and more with every decade until we reach that point at which our lives are characterized by sadness and loss. Thus, we may be surprised to learn what research conclusively confirms—that many of us could not be farther from the truth when we conclude that our finest years are long behind us. Older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people; they experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones, and their emotional experience is more stable and less sensitive to the vicissitudes of daily negativity and stress.
Although exactly when the well-being peak takes place is still unclear—three recent studies demonstrated that the peak of positive emotional experience occurred at ages sixty-four, sixty-five, and seventy-nine, respectively—what is very clear is that youth and emerging adulthood are not the sunniest times of life.
Why is this? When we begin to recognize that our years are limited, we fundamentally change our perspective about life. The shorter time horizon motivates us to become more present-oriented and to invest our (relatively limited) time and effort into the things in life that really matter. So, for example, as we age, our most meaningful relationships become much more of a priority than meeting new people or taking risks; we invest more in these relationships and discard those that are not very supportive. In a sense, we become more emotionally wiser as we age.
For a great deal more detail -- and citations of supporting theory and research -- see my new book, The Myths of Happiness (Penguin Press).