For many of us, the ‘Merry’ Christmas is well and truly over and the New Year doesn’t seem so happy.
Maybe we’re just expecting too much.
In a world constantly telling us we should be masters of our own happiness, it can be hard to discern the truth from the well-intentioned self-help mantras.
What does it mean to be happy? And how do we know if we are?
Don’t be fooled by the wave of happiness gurus and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ who will tell you the secrets to a happy life for a (not so) small fee.
Researchers who study subjective wellbeing, the scientific term for happiness, draw on a rich, evidence-based history. Decades of academic research reveal that happiness has a set-point, and it’s not 100 per cent.
One dominant theory, termed the ‘homeostasis theory of wellbeing’, describes how our happiness is regulated in the same way as our body temperature.
Our body temperature has an optimal point of 37 degrees Celsius, and though it can change in response to external circumstances, we engage in automatic physiological strategies to recover that set-point: When we’re warm we sweat, when we’re cold we shiver.
Having a higher or lower body temperature serves its purpose, but is stressful for the body to maintain over time. The set-point reflects the level at which our body functions most efficiently and effectively.
Let’s apply that to our happiness
Our happiness has a set-point too, with research suggesting it’s around 80 per cent.
Although our mood fluctuates in response to changing life circumstances, we engage in psychological strategies to recover that optimal level each time. Higher or lower levels of happiness are appropriate in response to changing situations, but they’re difficult to sustain over time.
The homeostasis theory of wellbeing extended the idea that we operate on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ – a term introduced back in the 1970s to describe how we’re constantly seeking greater happiness but not actually getting anywhere.
We know that when something bad happens we engage in regulatory strategies to mitigate the negative intensity. We tell ourselves it’s only temporary, we tell ourselves we’re good at other things, we tell ourselves we knew it would happen. We distract ourselves with other activities, or we actively problem solve to change the situation.
These strategies help to restore our set-point following a departure below its normal state.
But why can’t we live above our set-point? Why do our best attempts to increase our happiness fail? Why can’t we achieve lasting happiness?
It feels good to be happy. We can all look back on the happiest times of our lives and remember how it felt. But hedonic adaptation describes how we quickly get used to an elevated mood as the stimulus that caused it becomes less effective at generating additional happiness over time.
It takes effort and energy to maintain an elevated mood over time, so we regulate our positive emotions, much like we do their negative counterparts.
This means that changes to our happiness, in either direction, are usually short-term.
Why can’t we be 100 per cent happy?
The whole idea of having a set-point is that it reflects the default level at which we function best.
Despite the belief that greater happiness is worth pursuing, the emotional high comes at a cost. We sacrifice physiological and cognitive functions to be able to operate at a happier level.
You’ve probably heard that happier people think differently. That’s true, but not in the way you assume. Yes, higher optimism and greater confidence can be beneficial, but always in moderation.
Research shows that people who have an induced positive mood make all sorts of mistakes when it comes to focusing attention, solving difficult problems, spending money, and trusting others. Being generally happy is our default state, but being too happy can be dangerous.
But there’s so much advice on how to be happy!
There is, and a number of best-selling authors (including Barbara Ehrenreich, Oliver Burkeman, and Ruth Whippman) will tell you how that’s part of the problem.
Making people feel that they can achieve a higher level of happiness than is actually possible contributes to a growing sense of anxiety; a sense that everyone else is feeling something that seems to be perpetually just beyond your reach.
The real secret to happiness is that there is no secret. The research shows that no matter how grateful, mindful, or hopeful you are, it is not possible to chronically raise your set-point.
So don’t fall for the myths, the lies, the secrets. Don’t fall for the so-called ‘inspirational’ quotes you hear or read. Don’t be naïve when it comes to your own happiness.
Here are some common myths about happiness, and why they won’t help you.
Happiness lies within
We live in a society that encourages finding happiness within, when really we are wired to find happiness in the comfort of others. While it’s nice to feel like we’re in control of our own happiness, the truth is we’re largely dependent on other people to make us happy.
Social support in the form of close relationships is the No.1 predictor of happiness. Yet the self-help culture encourages people to focus inward, keeping them from the one thing that really matters most for happiness: other people.
This push toward self-driven happiness perpetuates a culture of loneliness, and encourages people who feel less happy to just cope with it themselves.
You can choose to be happy
It’s not that simple. The problem with this statement is that it implies that people who aren’t happy just don’t want to be. If they wanted to be happy they could decide to be, and their world would change.
Happiness is more than a decision, it’s a feeling that forms part of a wider emotional repertoire. Choosing to be happy implies that there’s something wrong with being sad, angry, or anxious.
All of our emotions serve important functions, even the ones we don’t enjoy.
Sadness focuses our attention inwards, allowing us time to process loss. Anger reminds us of things that have hurt us, and anxiety keeps us safe from harm. Negative emotions are critical for our survival, and choosing to be happy implies that there is only one right way to be.
A different strategy, then, would be to check the appropriateness of whatever emotion you’re experiencing.
The timing and duration of an emotion are more critical to your overall wellbeing than whether it is positive or negative.
Thinking positive is a hallmark of many psychological therapies, but the instruction to just “think positive” is a naïve oversimplification of a complicated process.
Happiness is a feeling, not a thought. And thinking positive doesn’t always work out so well.
This statement reflects a misappropriation of a research finding that showed happy people are more optimistic than those less happy. It follows, then, that if we give the unhappy people more optimism, they’ll become happy.
This logic only applies if optimism is causing the difference between the two groups. And it’s not.
Consider the way iron levels in our body work. If everything is working well, our body will automatically absorb and store the right amount of iron. When a person lacks iron, they may be prescribed iron supplements and their iron levels return to normal.
For many, the process is as simple as identifying a deficiency, and providing the appropriate replacement. But the iron supplements will not work unless the body knows what to do with them, and the treatment will not be effective in the long-term until the body learns to store the iron on its own.
Similarly, the introduction of positive thinking for a person who is unhappy can be easily rejected if the brain doesn’t know what to do with it.
If the brain doesn’t also have the appropriate resources or understanding to process the positive thought, it will never learn to produce it automatically.
Though some might claim that thinking positive is based on therapeutic techniques, it would never be applied in isolation.
In therapy, a psychologist would work with their client to identify unhelpful thoughts, acknowledge undesired feelings, and develop strategies to facilitate behaviour change. It wouldn’t be a free-for-all, but a well-organised, and supervised, plan for improvement.
So what should we do?
At an individual level, we’re pretty good at understanding what makes us happy.
We know the things that make us feel better when we’re sad, and we know that if we’re too excited we need to relax before we can get to sleep. We’re generally pretty good at regulating our emotions and recovering our set-point.
However, in the face of prolonged stress, our best efforts to recover our normal state can fail. And while the temptation may be to withdraw and try to cope alone, by far the most effective thing we can do is to open up about our troubles. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, talking helps.
Feeling unhappy for a prolonged period of time is not a determined decision on the part of the individual; It’s a system failure. And that system extends beyond the individual and their inner psychological workings to the social network around them.
Happiness is not an individual pursuit. It is everyone’s responsibility.
In the words of one of my key influencers, psychologist Dan Gilbert: “If someone offered you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass perpetually stuck on north is worthless.”
Dr Melissa Weinberg is a research consultant and psychologist, specializing in wellbeing and performance psychology. You can view her TEDx talk here