At the start of the new year, my husband and I were reflecting about what we hope for our two kids both now and as they grow up. Rather quickly, we agreed that we just want them to be happy, whatever paths they take. It sounded nice when we said it, and it’s true. I would love my children to be able to live long lives filled with joy.
The problem? Happiness, as a broad objective, is a pretty bad goal.
Most humans don’t walk around in a perpetual (or even semi-regular) state of bliss, because life is hard and because our brains have something of a negativity bias. Also, many of the things we humans tend to think will make us happy actually don’t.
Here are a few more key reasons why trying to be happier doesn’t necessarily work all that well, and what the science says about what does instead.
Happiness isn’t sustainable.
Happiness isn’t a great long-term goal simply because it is a “fluctuating emotion,” as psychologist Itai Ivtzan described it in a piece for Psychology Today. That’s particularly true of hedonic or hedonistic happiness, which is really about boosting pleasure and minimizing pain.
And pursuing that fleeting emotion too directly can really backfire, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California Riverside and author of “The How Of Happiness.”
She pointed to studies that find that people who “overvalue” happiness — those who state that their happiness at any given moment says a lot about how valuable their life is — tend to be less happy or become less happy over time.
“So if you’re too preoccupied with becoming happier, you might spend too much time monitoring your own emotions … asking yourself, ‘Am I happy yet? Am I happy yet?’” Lyubomirsky said. You might feel like a failure when the things you thought would offer some expected degree of happiness fall short, she explained.
Another key point? It doesn’t make sense to be happy all the time. “The goal isn’t to be happy 24/7,” Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center For Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told HuffPost.
For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to be happy in response to the loss of a loved one, he said. Or in the face of many other traumas and challenges — like global pandemics.
“Well-being” is a much better framework.
Given all of that, “we prefer the term ‘well-being’ to happiness,” Davidson said of his team at the Center for Healthy Minds.
And though it is not appropriate to be happy in the face of sorrow or trauma, it is possible to maintain high levels of well-being when you’re sad, he said. Grief and pain are a part of life.
Furthermore, well-being is an attainable, “reasonable” long-term goal for people to commit to, Davidson said. He and his colleagues with the Center for Healthy Minds recently published a study that they believe provides a “how” to well-being through concrete, daily habits (more on those below) — as well as a free accompanying app.
“Well-being is a skill,” Davidson said. “It’s something that can be cultivated.”
Money helps, but only up to a point.
Poverty takes an obvious toll on mental health and can become part of a really vicious cycle. Financial stress can hamper mood, physical health and increase a person’s likelihood of being exposed to trauma. All of that can then worsen economic outcomes.
But ample research shows there is a point above which money just doesn’t have much of an impact.
One 2018 study claimed, for example, that individuals in North America were really pleased with their lives when they were earning $105,000 a year, while above that number, happiness may actually decrease. (Of course, that’s significantly above the average individual income in the United States.)
Other studies have suggested that emotional well-being increases as people earn more money — up until about $75,000 a year.
So why doesn’t more money equal greater happiness? For one, people get used to what their money is able to buy them. (Again, hedonic happiness is fleeting.) Also, the amount of money people say they “need” tends to rise the more they earn, and we humans tend to base our sense of well-being on relative income (how much we earn compared to our peers) rather than how much we earn compared to everyone else.
Want to boost well-being? Awareness is essential.
In their recent study on the “how” of well-being, Davidson and his colleagues identified four key pillars, one of which is awareness. He described it to HuffPost as the ability to “show up and be present” as well as the “capacity to know what our minds are doing.”
And indeed, numerous studies have linked mindfulness to well-being. But Davidson and his colleagues emphasize that it is not necessary to develop a formal, sitting meditation practice. Instead, they urge people to get in the daily habit of simply closing their eyes and taking 10 deep breaths, or tuning in to sensations during menial tasks throughout the day.
“You can do these practices when you’re engaged in other activities of daily life,” Davidson said. “You can do them while you’re doing the laundry, while you’re walking, while you’re commuting, while you’re cleaning house … you literally don’t have to take another minute out of your day.”
Tap into your sense of purpose every day.
A 2019 study even found that having a stronger sense of purpose in life is linked to decreased mortality. Researchers are still exploring why exactly, but one possibility is that people who live with a sense of purpose actually have less inflammation in their bodies.
Experts believe the pursuit of purpose is really what sets us apart. “Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness,” wrote researchers in a 2013 study. “But the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.”
And it’s all about understanding your core values, or your “true north” in life, Davidson said.
It is also critical, however, to find ways to link the mundane parts of everyday life to those core values.
For example, Davidson said, you might feel that connection with your family really drives you. So notice how things you do around the home, like washing dishes, cleaning up after kids or a partner, or going to work to earn an income that contributes to your family’s financial stability, are really in service of that larger unit.
“Even the most mundane tasks,” he said, “can be deeply imbued with a sense of purpose.”
And again, how you think about that effort — and all of your efforts to improve well-being — matters.
“Focus on the positive practices, like gratitude or savoring or physical exercise or kindness,” Lyubomirsky told HuffPost, “but [do] not focus too much on the fact that you’re doing them to make yourself happier.”