Why We Need To Balance Out The Happiness Equation
The Debrief: Research shows our constant pursuit of happiness might actually be making us more miserable. Where’s the joy in that?
It was a New Year’s Day. I was face-down on a sagging mattress spread across the living room floor. Escape to the Country was on repeat in the background (I was too hungover to reach the remote). My mouth was dry. I could taste the vomit in my throat. And I realised I was failing at happiness.
I am not a joyless person. Actually, I laugh a lot. I am cheerful and warm in the company of friends. I am interested in life. I am wonderfully happy surrounded by food and family, or in the comfort of my boyfriend’s arms. But I am also prone to pantomime moments of sadness. I wallow. I stew. I am anxious and maudlin and stubbornly pessimistic.
And that New Year’s Day, in a fog of low blood sugar and with a liver in danger of going into spasm, I began to ruminate over everything that made me miserable in life.
The truth is, I will never be one of those people who feels hugely happy, all the time. But the worrying thing is, I feel guilty about this almost every day. Happiness is everywhere. I mean Literally. Fucking. Everywhere.
Last year, six of Amazon’s top 20 self-help books were focused on being happy or finding contentment. Research shows that internet searches for the word ‘happiness’ have tripled since 1998, and in a recent social media survey, happiness was identified as the main reason behind videos and images going viral. In our modern society, happiness is the one thing we prize above all else – even money, even material possessions, even food, for Christ’s sake.
But actually, this constant (and often fruitless) pursuit of happiness is one of life’s greatest ironies. How can we be truly happy if we’re constantly worrying if we’re as happy as other people; if we fret over whether we’re ‘doing’ happiness correctly; or if we obsess about being happily normal?
The last time my boss asked me how happy I was out of 10; I said 4. I could literally feel the wave of whispers spreading across the office, like wind across a field of grain. People gave me pitying looks. Some made confused noises. One kind colleague even emailed me to ask if I was OK (hun)?
This level of happiness had always seemed completely normal to me – although sure, I fluctuate above and below it given the circumstances – but because of their reaction, I’ve been worrying about it ever since.
Oft-cited happiness statistics don’t really help. One recent paper published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science claims that once we reach the age of 30, our happiness levels kind of ‘drop off a cliff’. Another, published in the Economic Journal, grimly warns us that our early 40s will be the ‘most miserable part of our lives.’
So, never have we felt the pressure to be more furiously happy than RIGHT NOW. In our 20s. When, presumaby, we should be running riot, guffawing from the rooftops, finding happiness and joy and pleasure and abandon in every fucking blade of grass and every video of a dog wearing a Yoda suit. This, society seems to tell us, is our last chance at happiness, and more fool us if we’re not revelling in every last moment, because apparently, it’s all a shit storm from now on.
The pressure is excruciating, and unsurprisingly, this constant quest to be happy can actually have a negative impact on our health. ‘If we’re constantly feeling we should be happy then we’re likely to neglect our other feelings – ignoring them, or brushing them aside – and that can be damaging to our overall emotional health,’ says west London-based integrative psychotherapist, Hilda Burke.
‘Our emotions give us valuable insights into who we are, how we relate to those around us and what makes us tick. To only focus on pursuing happiness is to live a somewhat monochrome existence.’
It’s also worth noting that our view of happiness has evolved in recent times. In his book Beyond Happiness, Anthony Seldon argues that, today, many of us are confusing happiness with pleasure. While we may consider the rush of endorphins we experience when we find that dress in the sale (and it only has minimal rippage and one missing button) to be happiness – this feeling of pleasure quickly fades, leaving us craving our next hit.
There are also biological roots to our happiness, suggesting some of us are simply programmed to be happier than others. A 2008 study using data from twins, carried out by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, found that 50% of our happiness is genetically pre-determined. So while some of us will be naturally blessed with the Tigger gene, others are biologically destined to be more like Chandler from Friends. And we shouldn’t fight the melancholy – it’s how we’re made.
But ultimately, what we need to remember, is that a little bit of sadness every now and then can actually be very useful. A 2013 study at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam found that spending roughly 10% of our lives feeling sad is good for us, because it reins in negative behaviour and encourages us to walk away from unhappy situations.
We also need to feel sad, upset or angry in order to feel empathy, and without that, we’d never try to help others, and the human race might simply fall off the face of the planet. ‘Without knowing sadness, it’s impossible to know happiness,’ adds Burke.
‘If you’ve ever been through heartbreak or bereavement and there suddenly comes a day when you smile again, or laugh again, it’s like a sunbeam penetrating through dark, thick ice. It’s so amazing because it follows a period of intense sadness. We need dark to be able to see the light.’
The truth is, we’ll never be happy by trying really hard to be happy (studies have even found that the greater value we place on happiness, the more lonely we actually feel). So sometimes, it’s just best to relax and turn our attention elsewhere.
‘Happiness is often a by-product of other things in our lives,’ says Burke. ‘It can be elusive – try and hunt it down and it evades us. However, when we forgot ourselves, pursue our passions and engage fully with the world around us, it often sneaks in the back door without us noticing.’
So the next time #blessed makes you feel emotionally redundant; if seeing someone’s smiling face on the bus makes you want to hurl things out the window; or you feel like David Attenborough talking about baby polar bears is going to bring about your nervous breakdown – that’s totally fine. Embrace it. It’s good to be bloody miserable sometimes.
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