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3 Beliefs About Happiness That Are Making People Unhappy

... and how to achieve more rational satisfaction.

Key points

  • The conviction that you "should" be happy can produce the opposite effect when it takes on irrational qualities.
  • New research on irrational happiness beliefs shows how personality and coping combine to potentially make things worse.
  • By taking situations as they come, even if they're not ideal, you'll appreciate the good times even more.

Although positive psychology’s focus on happiness and well-being was a welcome change from so-called “negative” psychology’s emphasis on symptoms and disorders, this philosophical shift may have come at a cost. If happiness becomes the goal in and of itself, and you fail to reach that goal, there must be something wrong with you. It’s not clear how the happiness revolution reached this point, but there must be a reason that people adopted so wholeheartedly the mantra of “I should be happy, no matter what.” Indeed, nations now measure their success in serving their citizens based on overall happiness surveys, adding further weight to the happiness-as-goal mentality.

According to a recent study by Ağri İbrahim Çeçen University’s Murat Yildirim and the University of Leicester’s John Maltby (2022), happiness has its functional and dysfunctional aspects. On the positive side, happiness can promote more adaptive functioning by allowing people to see the upsides of situations. The dysfunctional aspect of happiness, however, “has detrimental effects on well-being and mental health.” Most research on happiness focuses on its functional aspects but, according to Yildirim and Maltby, this fails to address the full picture. When the idea of happiness goes awry in an individual, it may be necessary to provide “intervention and prevention services to foster positive functioning."

The Irrational Happiness Belief Highway

Happiness becomes dysfunctional, the international researchers maintain, when people adopt the “irrational” belief that, above all, they need to be happy. Using terms from the well-known rational emotive theory of Albert Ellis, Yildirim and Maltby further define irrational happiness beliefs as taking the form that you “should,” “ought to,” or “must” be happy. When people adopt these beliefs, they start to go down a route of examining everything that happens to them in these absolutist terms.

Imagine yourself at an event that you eagerly anticipated as one that would cinch your happiness. Perhaps you and a friend planned to go to a concert by your favorite performer. For months, you imagined how elated you would be. However, this imagining soon turned to the irrational belief that because you wanted to enjoy the show so badly, you therefore “must” enjoy every single solitary moment of the evening. Once you got there, though, little things started to go wrong: Your feet hurt, you needed to use the restroom (but couldn’t), and the people around you were a little obnoxious. “No!” you cry internally, “I was supposed to be happy tonight!”

As you can see, traveling down that highway from eager anticipation to holding yourself to unrealistic standards prevents you from extracting whatever joy you could have from a less-than-perfect (but potentially still enjoyable) evening. Citing a host of previous studies, Yildirim and Maltby propose that if these irrational beliefs can be turned around, individuals will be better able to cope with situations that, like the concert, fail to live up to an unrealistically high standard of perfection. To facilitate this constructive notion of happiness beliefs, the authors developed a simple 3-item scale that could be examined in relation to measurable adaptive outcomes.

3 Ways to Test Your Own Irrational Happiness Beliefs

By now, you might already be able to imagine which 3 items could turn into an irrational happiness scale. As developed by Yildirim in his U. Leicester dissertation, the items are below. You can rate yourself from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) on these items:

  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.

Based on a 2022 online sample of 166 adults (average age 40 years old), the authors reported that people who tended to agree with one of the items also agreed with the others. Overall, participants' average was just under 13; most scored between 7 and 17. As you can see, then, there are individuals who are definitely rolling down the irrational belief highway.

Proposing that irrational happiness beliefs are part of a larger constellation of an individual’s approach to situations, Yildirim and Maltby compared the scores on the 3-item test with a measure of what's called BAS, or the tendency to avoid unpleasant stimuli (aversive motives) vs. BIS, the tendency to approach pleasant ones (approach motives). Based on the approach known as Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, the idea was that people higher in irrational happiness beliefs should be lower on approach and higher on avoidance motives.

However, personality alone isn’t enough to explain the problems that people high in irrational happiness beliefs may experience, the authors propose. Adding coping style to the equation, they included a situation-specific questionnaire asking participants to rate their use of 4 strategies: approaching the situation; avoiding the situation; trying just to feel better about it (emotion-focused); and reappraisal (reframing the situation).

Putting together personality and coping statistically yielded two overarching factors, the authors reported. The BAS-Approach factor included approach-oriented motives plus the three adaptive coping strategies of approach, emotional regulation coping, and reappraisal coping. In contrast, people high on the BIS-Avoidance factor were more likely to operate according to avoidance motives and to use avoidance-based coping strategies. In other words, feeling defeated by stressful situations appears to represent a combination of a desire to avoid unpleasantness in general and a tendency to run away from situations that seem overwhelming.

Although by now it may seem that the BAS-Approach factor would have greater adaptive qualities in terms of happiness beliefs, the findings showed the exact opposite: People high in the belief that they “should” be happy are motivated to seek positive rewards and, when faced with stress, try to alter the way they feel about the situation in order to be happier. As the authors conclude, “If happiness seems temporary and difficult to attain, it is because one allows their faulty beliefs system to affect their happiness."

How to Turn Irrational Into Rational Happiness

As the Yildirim-Maltby findings indicate, seeking happiness becomes in and of itself a process doomed to fail. The more you try to wrench good feelings out of a stressful situation, the less you will cope with it effectively, and the more you will continue to thwart whatever happiness you could extract from it. Returning to the example of the ill-fated concert, trying to force yourself to feel good when things don’t go exactly your way will be counterproductive. Do what you have to in order to try to fix the situation (maybe try to find your way to that restroom, for example) but don’t let the idea that happiness is the be-all and end-all color your ability to enjoy what is actually going well.

Taking situations as they come, then, rather than trying to force something to be good, appears to be the key to letting happiness emerge from situations rather than become the driving force. The next time you feel frustrated that you’re not as happy as you’d like to be, ask yourself why that matters so much. Aren’t there other aspects of life’s experiences that are just as important?

To sum up, taking a measure of your own irrational happiness beliefs seems to be the first step toward finding the fulfillment that comes from taking life’s joys as they come, when they come, and appreciating them when they do.

LinkedIn image: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock. Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock


Yıldırım, M., & Maltby, J. (2022). Examining irrational happiness beliefs within an adaptation-continuum model of personality and coping. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 40(1), 175–189. doi: 10.1007/s10942-021-00405-3

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