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3 Ways to Tell If You’ve Fallen for the Happiness Myth

New research shows how to test irrational beliefs about your need to be happy.

Key points

  • Happiness can have dysfunctional as well as functional effects on well-being.
  • Irrational happiness beliefs include feeling that you should, must, and ought to be happy.
  • Being convinced that you can fix the things that detract from your happiness can make you especially prey to irrational happiness beliefs.

Do you ever wonder if you should be happier than you are? Perhaps you’re on vacation and have travelled at considerable time and expense to get to your destination, a beautiful and secluded beach resort. Having settled in to your temporary home, you’re ready to go out and enjoy your new surroundings. As you stretch out in the sand, you think “Okay, it’s time to have fun!” You want everything to be perfect and just as importantly, you want to be happy.

As you prepare to enter a state of joyful bliss, a sad thought starts to threaten your ability to enjoy the moment. Right before leaving town, a friend called to let you know that her father passed away the night before. What's worse, this friend also learned recently that she has a potentially terminal illness requiring intense treatment over the next several months. You feel terrible just imagining what she's going through but you also become annoyed with yourself. You're on vacation. You should be happy!

There are probably no situations in life in which complete bliss is possible, whether it’s bad news, the weather, a physical ailment, or situations that are objectively stressful. It’s also true that even when you’re technically “happy,” there’s always something that can detract from your sanguine state. Maybe you’re worried about getting a sunburn or you see some gathering clouds on the horizon. Perhaps your travel companions are starting to annoy you. Yet, because you believe you "should" feel happy, you find it even harder to set these thoughts aside.

Happiness Can Have Its Dysfunctional Aspects

According to Ağrı İbrahim Çeçen University’s Murat Yildirim and University of Leicester’s John Maltby (2021), happiness may not be all that desirable a goal. On the one hand, being happy is a pleasant state (the mood you were in when you first lay down in the sand). More to the point, however, happiness becomes dysfunctional when you set yourself up as needing to be happy, no matter what. The Turkish-British authors suggest that people thwart their own ability to be happy by placing “excessive standards on themselves to attain happiness.”

Key to their analysis of what you might consider the happiness paradox is that problems begin when you let “should, ought, and must” enter into your need to put yourself in a good mood. Tracing their theoretical perspective back to the Rational Emotive Theory of Albert Ellis, Yildirim and Maltby note that this “absolutistic thinking” is what detracts from mental health. Pushing yourself to be happy can only make you more miserable when your situation fails to live up to your unrealistic standards of total bliss.

Some people are more susceptible than others to holding these irrational beliefs, as Yildirim and Maltby suggest. Personality and coping style are important factors to enter into the equation. The most likely to hold onto the "should's," according to their predictions, are people who constantly try to fix things that are unfixable. Their research tested this prediction out by studying the relationships among irrational happiness beliefs, personality, and coping style.

What Are Your Irrational Happiness Beliefs?

Before turning to the broader theoretical model tested in the Turkish-British study, you can take the test of irrational beliefs yourself by answering these three short questions: Ask yourself how much you agree or disagree (on a 1 to 7 scale) with these statements:

  1. I should always be happy in all aspects of my life.
  2. I must always be happy in all aspects of my life.
  3. I ought always to be happy in all aspects of my life.

As you think about how you would rate yourself on these items, you might recognize the slight nuances that differentiate “should” from “must” and “ought.” In rational emotive theory, a “should” means that you need to conform to some set of expectations, particularly those of other people. This concept comes in part from the German psychologist Karen Horney who coined the phrase “the tyranny of the shoulds.” The “must” relates to the idea of “musturbation” in the theory of Albert Ellis, or the absolute demand that you must always be in a state of happiness. An “ought” is very much like a should as it again implies that you have to live up to a certain standard.

Among the online sample of 166 American participants, ranging from 20 to 60 years of age (average 40) and with a roughly equal gender split, the average among the study sample was close to the midpoint of 13. Most people scored between 8 and 18, and the individual items were highly related to each other. If your score was in the range of 18 or above, then you would be considered high in your own holding of irrational beliefs about happiness.

Who Is Most Likely to Hold Irrational Happiness Beliefs?

The Turkish-British author team sought to understand the factors that would be most highly predictive of happiness beliefs by using measures derived from the “psycho-biological” model of personality that pits aversive motives (the desire to avoid unpleasant stimuli) against activation motives (the desire to approach pleasant stimuli).

If you are high on aversive motivation you’ll try very hard to avoid such negative stimuli as punishment. As an example, people high in this motivation would agree with the statement that “I feel worried when I think I have done poorly at something important.” Those who are motivated by a desire for pleasure are sensitive to signals of rewards such as “If I see a chance to get something I want I move on it right away.”

As you think about which type of motivational system best applies to you, now consider the potential role of coping and how you deal with situations involving stress. Here again, you might be characterized more by a desire to avoid negative states, so would try to find a way to ignore or deny the existence of a problem. People high in approach coping believe that they can force the problem to go away. Two other stress-reducing strategies involve reappraisal (looking at stress from a positive perspective) and emotion regulation (trying to make yourself feel better).

According to Yildirim and Maltby, these four coping categories are important personality indications. People high in extraversion are more likely to be high in approach motivation and they are also better at using reappraisal and emotion regulation strategies to deal with stress. People high in neuroticism as well as psychoticism are more likely to try to steer clear of stress.

Happiness Myths and the Ability to Manage Adversity

To analyze their findings, Yildirim and Maltby began by synthesizing the motivational and coping scores into two distinct factors. As the authors predicted, people high in approach motivation also were more likely to use the coping strategies of reappraisal and emotion regulation. Those high in avoidance motivation preferred to stay away from stress and therefore were less likely to try to deny or minimize its existence.

With respect to these personality-coping factors and irrational happiness beliefs, the findings supported the study's predictions. People high in approach motivation and positive coping strategies were, as expected, highest in irrational happiness scores. Their positive reward-coping orientation can lead them to think that mood, like any other problem, is “fixable.” As a result, they expect themselves to be happy and will do anything they can to make sure that they remain so.

People high in avoidance motivation who also tended to avoid coping showed no particular proclivity toward irrational happiness beliefs. These coping strategies may not be all that adaptive when it comes to solving problems that have a solution, and they can also paralyze people with fear about possible negative outcomes. However, in terms of irrational beliefs, individuals high in this personality-coping trait were not likely to jump on the happiness bandwagon. Perhaps they simply prefer not to think about problems such as those stray thoughts that can get in the way of their good vacation mood.

Although most models of personality and coping emphasize the value of such stress-busting strategies as reappraisal and emotion regulation, the current findings suggest that there are maladaptive features of being overly oriented toward the state of feeling good. If you've bought into the belief system that says happiness is a state you need to achieve, then you'll be less prepared to handle the inevitable situations that can bring you down.

To sum up, there are situations in life you can fix and those you can’t. Feeling convinced that changing your mood is the only way to be well-adapted might very well take you off the road to fulfillment and onto the path of dysfunctional thinking.


Yıldırım, M., & Maltby, J. (2021). Examining irrational happiness beliefs within an adaptation-continuum model of personality and coping. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. doi: 10.1007/s10942-021-00405-3