People-Pleasing: Why We Do It and How to Stop It

People-Pleasing: Why We Do It and How to Stop It

We all do it sometimes. We put others’ needs ahead of our own. It’s called people-pleasing: having an excessive focus on making others happy at the expense of our own wants and needs. It’s been called “the disease to please.”

We use it to avoid risking the disapproval of others or the discomfort of standing up for what we want. It’s a form of self-neglect as we seek validation from others.

People-pleasing is related to what social psychologists call “sociotropy,” the tendency to place an inordinate value on relationships over personal independence. It often comes with a strong need for social acceptance.

People-pleasing is common. According to a 2022 YouGov poll of a thousand U.S. adult citizens, 49% self-identified as people-pleasers, with 56% of women and 42% of men describing themselves this way.

And it isn’t all bad. Far from it. If we take pleasure in doing things for others, that’s great, and there are real benefits to it. By valuing people, we foster connections. People see that we care and understand their needs. We’re good at getting along with others. We work hard. We’re a nice person who’s empathetic and intuitive.

There are evolutionary reasons behind people-pleasing. We all want to be appreciated and loved. We all adapt our behavior somewhat to make things go more smoothly when we’re with others.

The problem is when we take it too far—when we do it so much that we lose ourselves in others and neglect our own wants and needs.

One danger is that our brains are good at rationalizing it. Since it often involves helping others, we justify our people-pleasing and refuse to account for its many costs.

Of course, we don’t want to move too far in the other direction. Do we want to be people-displeasers? People-antagonizers? People-annoyers? (Yes, some are down for that.) If everything is all about us and what we want, and we never do anything to help others, that can be even worse.

 

Signs of People-Pleasing

There are many signs of people-pleasing. When we’re people-pleasing, we tend to:

  1. find it hard to say no
  2. agree to something we don’t want to do
  3. accept projects with unrealistic deadlines
  4. take on more than we can handle because we don’t want to disappoint someone
  5. shift our own plans and schedules to accommodate others’ needs
  6. have trouble setting boundaries between our work and personal time
  7. take responsibility for making people feel better if they’re upset
  8. try to help people even when they’re not asking for it
  9. apologize for things that aren’t our fault
  10. have a hard time asking for help
  11. show people warmth even when it’s not warranted
  12. flatter people even when we don’t like them
  13. want to appear perfect
  14. go out of our way to avoid conflict
  15. feel miserable when we’ve upset or disappointed someone
  16. disregard our own feelings because we don’t want to jeopardize our relationship
  17. hold our opinion back to maintain harmony
  18. seek frequent reassurance
  19. have a hard time directing people (e.g., children or employees) to do things
  20. get overscheduled and overburdened often

In short, we’d rather have our own needs go unmet than disappoint someone. When we’re a people-pleaser, we’re often the overworked one in our workplace (more so than others). It’s not a fun place to be.

The corporate world loves people who are pleasers,
because we’re the ones who are always willing to take on any assignment.”
-Susan Schmitt Winchester, corporate HR executive and author

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Where People-Pleasing Comes From

Where does it come from? If we’re going to be able to do something about it, first we need to understand it.

Beneath our people-pleasing lies a strong desire or need to be liked. We may have learned from childhood that the needs of others come first. Psychologists note that some children use people-pleasing as a coping mechanism to connect with parents who only give love under certain conditions or with parents who are strict disciplinarians or unpredictable. It’s also baked into some cultures and some people’s mistaken views about what it means to be a good woman, wife, mother, caregiver, worker, or friend, among other things.

A common source of people-pleasing is insecurity. If we struggle with validating our own needs and desires, we may seek external validation. We may feel that our own needs are unimportant—or unworthy of respect and love.

Often, it’s the manifestation of a deeper issue such as insecurity or a history of maltreatment that we haven’t yet processed fully. When we’re pleasing, we’re trying to gain acceptance and affiliation by helping, flattering, or saving others. We may worry that fighting for our own needs will drive others away.

People-pleasing often comes with perfectionism, including a strong desire for control over how others perceive us. Finally, people-pleasing tendencies can come from childhood trauma or abuse. We may naturally use pleasing others to help us feel safe and secure.

Common themes underlying all these sources are fear and anxiety.

People-pleasing is an anxiety response…. (when we’re doing it) what we’re really saying is
‘I’m anxious about something. I’m anxious about not being liked. I’m anxious about being rejected.
Or I’m anxious that I’m not going to get what I want.’
People-pleasing is a manifestation of anxiety.”
-Natalie Lue, author

 

The Problem with People-Pleasing

Though it can have some benefits, as noted above, it also comes with many costs. For example, people-pleasing can lead to:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • overwhelm
  • exhaustion
  • burnout
  • taking on tasks that others should do
  • downplaying our own ideas and inner wisdom
  • having people take us for granted
  • becoming dependent on external validation
  • having dysfunctional relationships in which people end up liking us for the wrong reasons
  • diminished authenticity, connection, and intimacy in our relationships
  • reduced visibility by others into how overstretched we are because we hide it so well
  • others becoming dependent on us
  • feeling inauthentic because we’re not living life on our own terms
  • losing our own sense of identity
  • lower motivation and confidence
  • feelings of frustration, anger, resentment, and bitterness
  • pain and regret (in some cases because we’ve used people-pleasing as an excuse not to pursue our dreams)

People-pleasing sometimes relies on assumptions about what others want, but often those assumptions are wrong. We can spend a lot of time and effort people-pleasing only to miss the mark.

In the end, people-pleasing inhibits our happiness, connection, and freedom. It can even lead to financial loss, physical jeopardy, or eating disorders (e.g., matching the group’s eating habits to make others feel comfortable).

Left unaddressed, people-pleasing can become a way of life as the whims of others determine our choices and trajectory.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

How People-Pleasing Can Degrade Our Leadership

People-pleasing also has big implications in the workplace. Many leaders struggle with people-pleasing. For example, in two different surveys, 79-91% of pastors admitted to people-pleasing tendencies.

It can make us overloaded with work, pull us away from our most important work as we place others’ needs ahead of our own, and prevent us from learning to delegate and developing the capacities of our team.

People-pleasing can harm our credibility and integrity, our two most important leadership assets. People can sense it when we’re sugarcoating things, and they get frustrated when we’re not clear about what’s going wrong or what needs to change. They will also suffer if they only receive positive feedback, without actual things they can improve going forward.

People-pleasing can inhibit our leadership effectiveness when we get so invested in maintaining a positive rapport with our team that we fail to instill accountability and uphold the results imperative. Workers can take advantage of people-pleasing leaders by playing to their need to be liked and getting them to change their minds after meetings. This only causes frustration among other workers who are fighting hard to get good results the right way.

With people-pleasing, we can portray a false image of friendliness that may come back to haunt us when we need to take tougher action. It can make us avoid taking charge and lead us to tolerate poor performance or bad behavior. Part of the job of leadership is conveying difficult messages clearly and firmly, such as when performance isn’t up to snuff. But people-pleasing leaders tend to send mixed signals. Sometimes leaders need to bring the hard edge of leadership, the “steel.”

In short, people-pleasing can cause big problems for leaders, including indecisiveness, lack of direction and accountability, poor results, and attrition.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to escape the trap of people-pleasing. The first set of things has to do with our mindset, and the second with our behavior.

Starting with mindset, we can begin by recognizing that it’s healthy and normal to set boundaries and say no—and that we’re not responsible for how others feel. Self-worth and confidence come from within, not from others. People-pleasing isn’t heroic or noble. It’s not the same thing as kindness.

And we should understand that people-pleasing actually harms relationships because it degrades authenticity and integrity. Recognize that we can’t please everyone and that people-pleasers are often taken advantage of.

We should work at noticing when we’re engaging in people-pleasing (and tempted to)—as well as all its downsides. Meanwhile, we shouldn’t judge ourselves harshly for people-pleasing. We all have work to do in some areas. It’s also important to reflect on how we developed people-pleasing tendencies.

Where does it come from and is it serving us well or harming us?

The second set of things concerns our behavior. Here there are several actions we can take:

1. Buy time. When asked to do something, don’t answer right away. Take a pause. Check in with our emotions. Is the request bringing up overwhelm, resentment, or guilt if we say no? Our immediate urge to agree to all requests is the thing that’s been getting us into trouble. Ask for time to consider it. Let them know we’ll get back to them within a few days. That will give us time to process it, consider it in the context of our other obligations, and craft an appropriate response.

2. Scrutinize the request and the person it’s coming from. Consider whether the person may be taking advantage of us. Recall that healthy relationships are reciprocal, with both people giving and taking. Pay attention to whether we want to help or not. Think before committing.

3. Get clarity on our own purpose, core values, aspirations, and goals. Be clear about the things we want to say yes to—and which things fall out of that zone. Think of all the great things we’re missing out on when we’re neglecting our own wants and needs and doing all the things others want instead.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—
pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically—to say ’no’ to other things.
And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.
-Stephen R. Covey, author

4. Time-block. Block out times in our calendar that are off-limits to outside requests because they’re preserved for our own priorities. Those become an automatic no except in extraordinary circumstances.

5. Practice saying no. Don’t assume that people will be hurt if we don’t agree to a request. It’s possible that they didn’t expect us to agree and that they respect us for guarding our time. Most people get that we all have to say no sometimes. The key is in how we go about it and whether we say no with firmness and grace. (Tip: keep track of our “yes: no ratio” so we can gauge how we’re doing on this front.)

6. Build our confidence and assertiveness. Contrary to popular option, these aren’t set in stone. We can develop them. (See my article, “How to Build Confidence in Yourself and Your Leadership.”)

7. Seek help from a mentor, coach, or therapist. Note that it’s not easy to shift out of longstanding habits like this, and it’s likely to take time. Sometimes our people-pleasing is unconscious, and for some it has become like second nature. Start small.

8. Repeat our approaches for overcoming people-pleasing again and again. Develop new habits and repeat them often, thus rewiring our brain and re-setting others’ expectations.

 

Conclusion

In the end, we have a choice about whether to live out of a fear of not being liked or out of a conviction that our own wants and needs are important and worth pursuing. Will we find a healthy balance between honoring our own needs and serving others, or will we subsume our needs to those of others?

If we don’t get this right, we’re likely to regret it. But if we summon the courage to be who we are and to fight for what we want and need, we’ll end up with more authenticity, joy, and fulfillment.

Wishing you well with it.
Gregg

 

 

 

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you people-pleasing?
  2. How is it affecting your well-being, quality of life, and leadership?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to address it?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles, Books, and Videos

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming People-Pleasing

  • “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” -Lao Tzu
  • “People-pleasing comes from an underlying emotion of fear.” -Salma Hindy, Canadian engineer and comedian
  • “…anytime we’re doing something that is more about influencing what others think of us than it is about authentically expressing ourselves… we end up out of integrity with ourselves.” -Christine Carter
  • “Keep this question in mind: If I was no longer people-pleasing and abandoning myself and my needs, what would I be doing, thinking, and feeling?” -Maria Sosa
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” -Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “When you are saying no authentically, you can also say yes authentically. You are doing things that are really in integrity with who you are, your values, and how you want to feel instead of doing them out of obligation or for some hidden agenda.” -Natalie Lue, author
  • “We owe it to ourselves to stop (people-pleasing), because we are meant for more.” -Salma Hindy, Canadian engineer and comedian
  • “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are We Numbing Our Lives Away?

Are We Numbing Our Lives Away? by Gregg Vanourek

One of the most insidious traps that we can fall into these days is numbing—escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things. When we do this, we’re taking the edge off feelings that cause us pain or discomfort. We’re anesthetizing difficult emotions. The problem is compounded by the fact that many families and cultures teach people, either explicitly or implicitly, to suppress their feelings.

We can numb not only with things like alcohol, drugs, or smoking but also with binge-watching shows or doom-scrolling social media. Our numbing might be excessive work and busyness or constant emailing and texting.

“…one of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy….
We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that
if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Our numbing can entail shopping, gambling, eating, or sex—or even excessive exercising or cleaning. Some of these, like exercise, can be healthy in moderation but become problematic when done excessively.

Increasingly, we’re seeing what I call “power-numbing”—engaging in several numbing behaviors at the same time, such as drinking, texting, and scrolling while binge-watching. (My friend Renae Jacob calls it “multi-vicing.”)

The point isn’t that we have to stop doing all these things. Some can be done in moderation or even often. The key is choosing which behaviors serve us and not letting ourselves unconsciously numb swaths of our life away. The point isn’t to deprive ourselves of pleasures but rather to stop escaping from our lives.

A key consideration is the severity of the behavior in question. Our numbing behaviors can range from mild or moderate to severe, and at the further end of that spectrum lies addiction.

 

Addiction and Numbing

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brene Brown describes addiction as “chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off of feelings.”

According to researchers, having an addiction disorder entails losing our ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue a behavior. An addiction leads to adverse consequences when we engage in it, such as problems with our life or work roles, financial loss, emotional trauma, dangerous situations, or bodily injury or impairment. Meanwhile, when we stop the behavior abruptly, it often leads to irritability, anxiety, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, or depression.

In essence, addiction is an attempt to use shortcuts to feeling good, but it doesn’t work. Many factors can fuel addictions, including trauma, addictive medications, genetic disposition, sexual and gender stresses, and related disorders that coincide with the addiction.

Unfortunately, addictions are common, and they can lead to other addictions as well. According to the Addiction Center, nearly 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment.

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports the following about addiction in the U.S.:

  • Of the nearly 140 million people 12 and older who drink alcohol, more than 20% of them suffer from alcohol abuse or addiction
  • 25.4% of all users of illicit drugs suffer from drug dependency or addiction
  • Drug abuse and addiction cost more than $700 billion annually in healthcare expenses, crime-related costs, and lost workplace productivity
  • About half of individuals with a diagnosed mental illness will also struggle with substance abuse at some point in their lives, and vice versa
“…statistics dictate that there are very few people who haven’t been affected by addiction.
I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically,
which is addiction, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t numb our sense of vulnerability.
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

The problem isn’t confined to substance abuse. Many people are addicted to work. Technology is also a big culprit these days, with giant tech companies creating addictive products and big-data algorithms adept at capturing our attention and rewiring our brains. Think of how quickly we’ve handed over huge chunks of our days—and thus our lives—to devices and screens.

When it comes to smartphones, according to Zippia Research in 2022:

  • The average American spends 5 hours and 24 minutes on their mobile device daily
  • Americans check their phones 96 times per day, on average (once every ten minutes)
  • 47% of people believe they’re addicted to their phones
  • 71% of people admit to checking their phone within the first ten minutes of waking up
“Imagine walking into a control room with a bunch of people hunched over a desk with little dials, and that that control room will shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction, but this actually exists right now, today…. Right now it’s as if all of our technology is basically only asking our lizard brain what’s the best way to impulsively get you to do the next tiniest thing with your time, instead of asking: in your life, what would be time well spent for you?”
-Tristan Harris, Executive Director, Center for Humane Technology

According to recent research on binge-watching:

  • 73% of Americans admit to binge-watching video content
  • The average binge lasts three hours and eight minutes
  • 90% of millennials and members of Generation Z binge-watch
  • 70% of Americans aged between 30 and 44 often binge-watch TV shows or films
  • 26% of those aged 18 to 29 binge-watch TV every day

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Why We Numb

Numbing behaviors are essentially avoidance mechanisms. There are many factors behind our numbing impulses. Here are 12 common factors:

  1. pain
  2. anxiety
  3. disconnection from others—and its related feelings of loneliness and isolation
  4. feelings of unworthiness
  5. discomfort with uncertainty
  6. stress caused by competing demands on our time
  7. feelings of emptiness
  8. the hurt from feeling unseen
  9. disappointment at ourselves for not being able to handle everything perfectly
  10. the sense that we’re living a life in which we’re not true to ourselves
  11. trauma
  12. abuse

Beneath the discomfort that we’re escaping are fears—fears of failing or struggling or looking bad or feeling unworthy.

We can also have urges to numb if we have a deadening job that’s boring, monotonous, and lacking opportunities for autonomy and initiative—or if our work lacks purpose, connection, or opportunities for development and recognition.

 

The Problem with Numbing

Numbing is a short-term defense mechanism that can end up making things worse for us. It can lead to financial and health problems as well as fights with loved ones or broken relationships (sometimes because we lash out at others when our pain finally surfaces after being repressed).

When we numb, we may feel flat, both physically and emotionally, and become distant or detached from others, perhaps preferring isolation, which can lead to loneliness and despair. We may lose interest in activities we used to enjoy and stop being present in our own lives. Numbing can also diminish our motivation and creativity.

An unintended side effect of our numbing is that it works in both directions. Numbing difficult emotions such as pain and sorrow also numbs our experiences of happiness and joy.

We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Also, we may need more and more of the numbing behavior to feel good, setting us up for trouble down the road.

We may not notice that there are also indirect “opportunity costs” of our numbing behaviors—the value of what we could have been doing if we weren’t numbing. Instead of working excessively or binge-watching, what if we were connecting more with loved ones, reading a great book, learning a new language or musical instrument, getting our hands dirty with gardening, visiting new places, gazing at the stars, or reveling in the richness of being alive?

When we numb, we walk away from ourselves.
-Andrea Owen, How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to reduce our numbing behaviors and mitigate their impacts. Here are many useful approaches:

Recognize that our bodies are trying to speak to us through our emotions. Our emotions can serve an important role as signals or warnings, but only if we pay attention to them. But numbing deprives us of the chance to do so.

Realize that we started numbing for a reason—and reflect to discover what that reason was. Are we feeling overwhelmed at work, or conflicted between our home and work roles, or powerless to help someone we care about?

Notice our numbing behaviors. Be curious about what thoughts and feelings lead to an urge to numb:

Why? Where is it coming from? What are we trying to avoid? What lesson or insight might it hold for us?

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown recommends asking if the numbing behavior (e.g., drinking, overworking, etc.) stops us from being emotionally honest, feeling like we’re enough, setting boundaries, and connecting with others. Consider whether we’re using it to escape from our lives.

Name the feelings that cause us to want to numb (e.g., overwhelm, shame, loneliness, despair). Sometimes getting clarity and understanding can open the door not only to relief but also to important insights and hope for improvement.

Take time to feel what we’re feeling—what author Andrea Owen calls “controlled emoting”—and accept our feelings as worthy. Learn how to feel our feelings instead of numbing or dismissing them. Accept ourselves fully without judging ourselves and thinking we’re bad when we have certain thoughts.

Sit with our pain, leaning into it. Connect with it and acknowledge it instead of fleeing it. Though many of us were taught to avoid or suppress emotional pain, that only makes things worse. Our pain is there for a reason, and we can handle it better when we allow ourselves to feel and process it and then, eventually, to let it go as it moves through us.

Talk about our feelings with a trusted friend or trained counselor or therapist. Choose one who can listen attentively and empathetically without trying to fix us. (See the end of this article for a list of support resources.)

Trust that we’ll be okay. Recall all we’ve experienced and overcome in the past.

Take a break from our go-to numbing behaviors, such as social media or streaming shows.

Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits, recommends setting a “practice container” to address numbing with the following steps:

Choose to do something productive instead of numbing. Go for a walk to clear our head or try journaling. Choose something we enjoy and that adds value to our lives.

Recognize that the addiction wants us to isolate from others. That’s the worst thing we can do. Numbing behaviors tend to thrive in secrecy, so we must bring them to light.

Pray for help in facing and healing our pain, particularly with chronic numbing behaviors or addictions that feel overwhelming. (For those struggling with addiction, consider support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous—and see more below—and their guiding principles such as the 12 Steps.)

Serve others, even in small ways. Contributing to others can take us out of a wallowing self-focus and give us a chance to feel good about helping people, even via small acts of support or kindness.

 

Conclusion

As humans, we all feel pain and discomfort, so it’s understandable that we’re tempted to escape it via numbing. We need to learn, though, that too much numbing makes things worse, not better.

Avoiding gets us nowhere.
Anesthetizing is a temporary salve.
Escaping doesn’t help at all.

Better instead to turn and face the discomfort, listen to what it’s telling us, and do something about it—ideally, with help from others. Going it alone isn’t wise, so we need to get better at asking for help and letting people experience the satisfaction of helping us.

The alternative to numbing is experiencing life more fully and addressing the inevitable challenges we face head-on.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you numbing with screens, work, substances, or other escapes from your thoughts and feelings?
  2. What’s driving those behaviors?
  3. How will you start to break the cycle?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Brene Brown Gifts of Imperfection

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Numbing

  • “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” -Brene Brown
  • “I know from my own clinical work that when people are beaten and hurt, they numb out so that they can’t feel anymore.” -John Bradshaw
  • “We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
  • “When you’re in survival mode, you numb yourself.” -Clemantine Wamariya
  • “I learned to be with myself rather than avoiding myself with limiting habits; I started to be aware of my feelings more, rather than numb them.” -Judith Wright
  • “I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” -Audre Lorde
  • “She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her to not feel her feelings.” -Ellen Burstyn, American actress
  • “The priority of any addict is to anaesthetize the pain of living to ease the passage of day with some purchased relief.” -Russell Brand
  • “Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you—it’s the cage you live in.” -Johann Hari
  • “If you can quit for a day, you can quit for a lifetime.” -Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  • “What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” -Alice Miller
  • “At first, addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of the pleasure gradually diminishes and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.” -Frank Tallis
  • “Drugs take you to hell, disguised as heaven.” -Donald Lyn Frost
  • “Addiction, at its worst, is akin to having Stockholm Syndrome. You’re like a hostage who has developed an irrational affection for your captor. They can abuse you, torture you, even threaten to kill you, and you’ll remain inexplicably and disturbingly loyal.” -Anne Clendening
  • “Addiction is the only prison where the locks are on the inside.” -unknown
  • “Remember just because you hit bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” -Robert Downey, Jr.
  • “Never underestimate a recovering addict. We fight for our lives every day in ways most people will never understand.” -unknown
  • “…almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong…. A core part of addiction… is about not being able to bear to be present in your life…. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” -Johann Hari in his 2015 TED talk
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to—alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person—you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain. That is why, after the initial euphoria has passed, there is so much unhappiness, so much pain in intimate relationships. They do not cause pain and unhappiness. They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tip toe if you must, but take the step.” -Naeem Callaway

 

Appendix: Support Resources

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Catastrophizing–Managing Our Minds

Ben White Unsplash
The sky has finally fallen. Always knew it would.”
– Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh

Things have been tough in the last few years. Pandemic. Inflation. War.

Many are suffering mightily. Maybe you’ve been suffering too.

But are you complicit in your own suffering? Are you making things, as tough as they may be already, even worse?

One of the ways we do this is through “catastrophizing.”

Catastrophizing is a form of cognitive distortion, in which we assume the worst and blow things out of proportion. We imagine the worst possible outcome and generate an exceptionally negative expectation of future events.

When we’re catastrophizing, we see something concerning or bad and assume it’ll become a disaster. We believe our own horrendous forecast even when those thoughts have no basis in reality. Our catastrophizing brain becomes a breeding ground for stress and anxiety, starting a downward spiral.

When we’re catastrophizing, we’re also assuming that we won’t be able to cope with the predicted disaster when it materializes.

One of the worst things anybody can do is assume. I think fools assume.
If people have really got it together, they never assume anything.
They believe, they work hard, and they prepare–but they don’t assume.
– Mike Krzyzewski

Warning Assumptions Ahead

 

Examples of Catastrophizing

Here are examples of catastrophizing:

  • “If my partner leaves me, I’ll be alone and unhappy for the rest of my life.”
  • “I’m hurting today. It’s going to get worse, and I’ll never get better.”
  • “If I fail this test, I’ll have to drop out of school. I’ll devastate my parents and become a failure.”
  • “I’m having a hard time with this challenge. I’m worthless. I may as well quit.”

Though it sounds extreme, catastrophizing can be common. Many psychologists believe that we’ve all done it sometimes.

Catastrophizing is related to anxiety, but there’s an important difference: anxiety can benefit us by causing us to take preventing measures. By contrast, catastrophizing has no redeeming value. It only makes us feel worse about phantom probabilities.

Catastrophizing is a bit like taking a microscope to our worst fears and viewing them at a scale a hundred times their actual size. The proportions are way off. So it shuts us down.

Sometimes catastrophizing joins forces with other nefarious thinking traps, such as:

  • Rumination: obsessive thinking about our distress (as opposed to its solutions)
  • Helplessness: feeling powerless when facing a negative situation

 

Causes of Catastrophizing

Why do we do catastrophize? There are many causes.

For starters, when we’re in a state of fear and/or anxiety, we’re more prone to catastrophizing. (See my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear.”)

Also, our catastrophizing is often worse when we place extra importance on someone or something. When we value something greatly, like our relationship with a partner or our position in a social hierarchy, we can develop a hyped-up fear of losing it.

In addition, ambiguity can amp up the catastrophizing quotient. If, for example, we get a message from our spouse or boss that reads, “We need to talk,” it may cause our catastrophe circuits to go haywire.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

 

The Problem with Catastrophizing

Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do,
but it doesn’t get you very far.”
– Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult quote

There are big downsides to catastrophizing. At its worst, it can:

  • fill us with harmful (and unnecessary) emotions
  • take time and thought away from the actual situation we’re in (and its potential solutions)
  • amplify our self-doubt
  • lead to paralysis and inaction
  • give us the illusion that the worst case is our new normal
  • contribute to a victim mentality that gets us nowhere
  • prevent us from experiencing contentment and happiness
  • become a destructive lifelong habit unless we nip it in the bud
Deal with your negative patterns before they become habits
because habits are hard to break.”
– Germany Kent

 

12 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing

Thankfully, we don’t have to be passive victims of whatever thought-streams appear in our heads.

There are many things we can do to reduce or eliminate catastrophizing. Here are twelve of them:

  • acknowledge that bad things happen to all of us
  • recognize when we’re engaging in catastrophizing (mindfulness and meditation techniques can help make such awareness easier over time)
  • place our experiences into perspective
  • consider a range of possible outcomes—from positive to neutral to mildly negative ones and not just disasters
Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
-A.A. Milne, English poet and playwright
  • reframe thoughts from negative to positive ones (e.g., opportunities to learn and grow)
  • recall situations in which we’ve coped with and overcome negative events
  • lean on trusted relationships—and community—to provide support, encouragement, and perspective when needed
  • focus more on helping and serving others and less on how things are going for ourselves
  • think about the things we can control, letting go of things we can’t
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
-the Serenity Prayer
  • command ourselves to stop catastrophizing (some people actually benefit from speaking the words out loud, e.g., “Stop catastrophizing!”)
  • use positive affirmations (constructive statements that we repeat to ourselves to condition our brain for clarity and success)
  • engage in regular self-care practices, such as eating well, maintaining good sleep routines, exercising often, taking frequent breaks throughout the day, breathing deeply, enjoying hobbies, and getting out into nature

In the end, we all experience bad things in life. The key is to avoid making them worse by magnifying our negative thinking about them. Instead, why not take productive action to avoid or address them?

serenity prayer

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you been catastrophizing?
  2. In what areas?
  3. What will you start doing to turn your thoughts into allies instead of enemies?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotations on Catastrophizing

  • “Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” -Charles F. Glassman
  • “I define anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.” -Seth Godin
  • “Fear starts in the mind and it generates emotions. One fearful thought will lead to another if you let it. The way to keep that from happening is to not allow yourself to camp out in fear in your mind.” -Sadie Robertson, Live Fearless: A Call to Power, Passion, and Purpose

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Is Happiness So Elusive?

(This article is part of a series on happiness. See the end of the article for more articles in the series.)

We want to be happy. To live well. And enjoy life.

We have our moments, and if we’re fortunate some long stretches of happiness.

But it’s harder than it sounds. There are struggles. Highs and lows. And not just because of the swirling vortex of challenges around us, from the pandemic to a depressing news cycle, with endless waves of shocks and worries.

No, it’s not just that. (As if that weren’t enough.) In our day-to-day experience and its accompanying thought streams, there are many other factors that get in the way.

Here are eight of the most important factors making happiness elusive.

 

1. The Ups and Downs of Positive Emotions

We’re not wired to be happy all the time. Life has its ups and downs.

Positive emotions are an important component of happiness. They include pleasant feelings or situational responses such as interest, serenity, amusement, hope, pride, love, joy, and awe. But we have negative emotions too: concern, disappoint, frustration, regret, anxiety, and more.

Nat Rutherford from the University of London notes that “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won, but instead it’s a practice which we hone, imperfectly, in circumstances only partly of our making…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.”

As we can learn from the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, the key is to give ourselves many experiences of contentment, wellbeing, and joy. And if we work at living well and honoring our nature, we’ll also naturally develop a sense that our life is good and meaningful—a sense of life satisfaction.

 

2. Hedonic Adaptation

Researchers point to “hedonic adaptation,” in which we become accustomed to changes in our circumstances. Then we settle into that new baseline as if nothing had happened. Our positive feelings diminish and settle back into neutral.

This leads to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster but get nowhere in terms of happiness. We end up right where we started.

Why? Part of the problem is our rising aspirations. We may want a bigger house, for example, and then a much bigger house with a nicer view.

Another issue is social comparison. If our new friends have upgraded their smartphone (or car, or vacation destination), we see our own things in a diminished light.

 

3. Our Mistaken Beliefs about What Brings Happiness

As noted in my article on “The Most Common Myths about Happiness,” we have many mistaken beliefs about what will bring us happiness, and these get us into trouble. Our theories of happiness are often wrong.

My top ten list of the most common myths:

  1. Myth: We must pursue happiness.
  2. Myth: Happiness comes from changing our circumstances.
  3. Myth: When we’re successful, we’ll be happy.
  4. Myth: Having certain things will make us happy.
  5. Myth: Money will bring us happiness.
  6. Myth: Happiness is a destination.
  7. Myth: We always revert to our “happiness set point.”
  8. Myth: We can’t be happy when we’re experiencing negative events.
  9. Myth: Happiness is a solo endeavor.
  10. Myth: Happiness declines with age.

There’s nuance when it comes to happiness. These simplistic notions fail to deliver the happiness.

With a flawed road map, we end up far from our intended destination. And lost. Better instead to be aware of the many research-based happiness practices.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

4. Negativity Bias

Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome thoughts, sour feelings, or unpleasant social interactions often have a greater effect on our mental state than positive things (or neutral ones). This “negativity bias” darkens the skies of our lived experience.

What’s more, negative feelings narrow our thoughts—and thus the range of actions we’re likely to take.

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost.
It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”

-Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

 

5. Fear

As noted in my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear,” fear is universal. We all feel it. It’s hardwired into our neurobiology.

Fear comes with an array of chemical reactions in our body, including a flood of stress hormones and impairment of our cerebral cortex. When feeling fear, we’re far from a mental state conducive to positive emotions and happiness.

In today’s world, sophisticated operators (from demagogues to technology platforms) have figured out how to hijack our attention. They’ve monetized and weaponized fear. They constantly broadcast alerts or promote shrewd narratives designed to elicit our fear response by threatening our identity or tribe. The result is a far cry from happiness.

 

6. Putting Stock in the Wrong Things

Much of the modern world is pushing the message that the accumulation, consumption, and display of material things will make us happy. We conflate wealth with success. And we assume that money and success will bring us happiness.

Wrong. The research says otherwise. (See “The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness” and “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

Happiness will continue to elude us if we insist on putting stock in the wrong things.

 

7. The Problem with Pursuing Happiness

It’s baked into our cultural programming that we must pursue happiness. As logical as it sounds, it turns out to be counterproductive.

Some things become more elusive the more we pursue them. It turns out that some things play hard to get.

As the old saying goes, happiness is like a butterfly. If we pursue it, it remains beyond our grasp. But it may alight upon us if we sit quietly and forget out it.

The reality is that happiness is more likely to arrive when we focus on other things, such as purpose, deep connection with others, serving others, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—and something we value.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher

 

8. The Expectations Trap

Scholars warn about the “expectations trap”: when there’s a gap between our current life satisfaction and our expected life satisfaction, It causes us to feel disappointment or view our overall life satisfaction unfavorably, even though our life conditions may be positive. The problem is that we can set our standards too high, such that they’re unrealistic and destined to disappoint.

According to clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, we may set ourselves up for failure when we focus on the pursuit of happiness. Since feelings of happiness are likely to wax and wane, as she says, we’re headed for trouble when the highs fade. We’ve fallen into the expectations trap.

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”
Yuval Noah Harari, author and historian

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What to Do about It

As we’ve seen above, happiness can be elusive. For many reasons.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. In fact, researchers have identified a number of happiness-inducing activities (summarized in the article, “What Leads to Happiness”). Here are some of the main ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity
  2. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity
  3. Purpose and meaning
  4. Relationships with others
  5. Goals and aspirations
  6. Authentic expression of self
  7. Anticipation
  8. Gratitude
  9. Experiences
  10. Learning and developing
  11. Meditation and mindfulness
  12. “Person-activity fit”
  13. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative
  14. Journaling
  15. Resilience
  16. Savoring
  17. Self-care
  18. Strengths (knowing and doing the things that we’re good at)
  19. Intentional and effective use of time
  20. Variety

It turns out that there’s no magic recipe for happiness. We’re all different, with varying values, personalities, and contexts.

What if we need a tailored recipe for our own unique tastes, drawing on common ingredients but in different proportions?

Why not get busy crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it? And capture in the process some of that elusive happiness and joy.

“Many of us persist in searching for ‘the one’ true secret path to happiness (or to career success or to spiritual fulfillment and so on), like the one diet that will work when all others have failed. In truth, there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier…. If there’s any ‘secret’ to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness
Sonja Lyubomirsky

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness

Many people believe in the logic:

When I’m successful, I’ll be happy.

Sounds reasonable. After all, professional success will bring a sense of accomplishment and status. Nice. It tends to come with higher income and more wealth. So it’s likely to make us happy.

The logic is sound. But wrong. Not only wrong, but backwards.

According to an extensive review by researchers over many years, it works the other way around:

When I’m happy, I’m more likely to be successful.

Researchers Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky did a massive investigation of the potential relationship between career success and happiness, published in a 2005 paper. In a follow-up 2018 paper, they revisited the research with updated evidence from different kinds of studies around the world, including cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies.

 

The Benefits of Happiness

From this extensive research, they found that happier people have a wide array of benefits and advantages, including:

  • More investment and involvement in their work
  • More job satisfaction
  • More social support from their supervisors and colleagues
  • Greater optimism, creativity, originality, confidence, flexibility, and curiosity
  • More ambitious goal-setting
  • Increased perseverance at challenging tasks
  • Higher performance and productivity in an array of work settings
  • Greater sales
  • Better work evaluations from their supervisors
  • Higher incomes
  • Less burnout, absenteeism, and job turnover

It’s an astonishing array of benefits. Here are some of the main conclusions from their research:

“First, the cross-sectional literature supports a correlational link between happiness and various success-related outcomes. Happiness is positively associated with job autonomy, job satisfaction, job performance, prosocial behavior, social support, popularity, and income….
Second… The longitudinal research suggests that people who are happy at an initial time point are more likely to find employment, be satisfied with their jobs, acquire higher status, perform well, be productive, receive social support, be evaluated positively, engage in fewer withdrawal behaviors, and obtain higher income at a subsequent time point….
Finally… The experimental research demonstrates that when people are randomly assigned to experience positive emotions, they negotiate more collaboratively, set higher goals for themselves, persist at difficult tasks longer, evaluate themselves and others more favorably, help others more, and demonstrate greater creativity and curiosity than people assigned to experience neutral or negative emotions.”
-Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Happiness Advantage

Author Shawn Achor has famously called this the “happiness advantage.” He writes:

“When we are happy—when our mindset and mood are positive—we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful.”
-Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

It gets even better. Many researchers have noted that there’s an “upward spiral” at work here. There are different factors providing positive reinforcement to other factors:

 “several pieces of evidence… suggest the presence of upward spirals—that is, where positive emotions trigger an adaptive outcome related to career success, which in turn triggers more positive emotions and further success.”
-Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

Since we’re talking about complex phenomena like people, their emotions, and their performance in social settings, there are nuances. A 1999 study noted that there’s likely a “bidirectional relationship” between happiness and job performance, with happiness helping to drive high performance, and high performance likely to boost happiness. It may be more complicated than that. There may be what Lyubomirsky and her colleagues call a “chain of reciprocal relationships.” Sets of variables affect other factors over time iteratively.

 

Biology at Work

That this makes sense from a biological perspective. For example, Achor notes that “positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.”

When we feel positive emotions, we’re flooded with the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. These activate and stimulate the learning centers in our brain, helping us think more quickly and creatively, organize new information, and improve our analytical and problem-solving skills. Essentially, we prime our brains to become more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. Other people see this, and we can work more effectively with them.

These findings are powerful, with profound implications for how we should live and work—and how we should think about approaching them. We can begin by engaging in happiness-promoting activities backed by research.

But let’s not take this logic too far. This isn’t about simplistic positive thinking. Having a positive outlook is a related factor but not central to the drivers here. Just because happiness promotes career success doesn’t imply that it’s the only factor in success. Surely, there are many. And it doesn’t imply that unhappy people can’t be successful.

It doesn’t mean that organizations should hire only outwardly happy people. Or that they should mandate happiness activities for all workers. This can turn Orwellian quickly.

The researchers cited above note that there’s an area where the benefits of happiness and positive emotions appear mixed: when workers attempt to perform complex mental tasks. Some research has found that positive emotions can inhibit local reasoning and scramble attempts to distinguish between strong arguments and weak ones.

And there may be an advantage to negative emotions in some settings and on some tasks, such as ones that require careful execution of steps when decision-making is structured. Sometimes the critical lens of skepticism and doubt is wildly valuable.

 

Focusing Too Much on Success

We can also look at this from another angle: there are risks that come with the pursuit of success.

As I noted in my article, “Are You Trapped by Success?”, there are many potential traps associated with chasing success, including:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Conclusion

Many of us invest a great deal of our identity and self-worth in our work. Including a sense of whether we feel successful. Including whether we believe we’re perceived as successful in the eyes of others and relative to our peers. Relative to the expectations we have for ourselves—and the expectations of family and friends.

We seek happiness, and we believe that becoming successful will make us happy.

So we must unlearn this. We must rewind and rewrite the script, recognizing that we’ve had it backwards all this time. Recognizing that it hasn’t been serving us.

Now that we know that when we’re happy, we’re more likely to be successful, we can get back to the basics of living a good life, knowing and trusting that good things are likely to flow from that naturally.

If we live well, happiness and success are likely to follow.

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Quotations on Happiness and Success

  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Myths about Happiness

Happiness is a universal aspiration. We all want happiness, including a sense of wellbeing and overall life satisfaction.

Here’s the problem: we’re bad at knowing what will actually bring us happiness.

There are many happiness myths that get in the way. Here are 14 of the most common happiness myths—and their corresponding realities.

 

Myth: Happiness is the goal of life—the be-all and end-all of human existence.

Many of us view happiness as the point of life.

Understandable. But flawed. Having happiness as our goal in life is destined to disappoint.

A better goal, I believe, is to live a good life, by becoming a good person. Leading a life of purpose, connection, and service. A life in which we learn, grow, and develop. Days of appreciation, joy, and savoring. A life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist essayist, philosopher, and poet

 

Myth: We must pursue happiness. (And find it.)

The “pursuit of happiness” is pervasive. It’s even written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and it underlies much of our thinking about how to live.

Many of us are relentless pursuers of happiness. But pursuing it turns out to be counterproductive. Pursuing it won’t bring us the happiness we seek. And it’s not really something we find.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.
Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
-John Stuart Mill, English philosopher and politician

Social psychologist Iris Mauss has shown that the more we strive for happiness, the more likely we are to feel disappointed, in part because we’ve set standards that are too high.

Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky prefers the phrases “creation of happiness” and “construction of happiness” to “pursuit of happiness.” She notes that we can create our own happiness.

Writer Chris Guillebeau flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.” He says that the path to happiness involves pursuing a “quest,” a significant long-term goal or higher purpose.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Myth: Happiness comes from changing our circumstances.

The logic goes like this: “When I get X, then I’ll be happy.” When I get a…

new job
promotion
raise
new boss, house, spouse, or partner
more money
better body
fame

Here’s the problem: Happiness doesn’t come from external events or circumstances, at least in ways that endure. It’s an inside job.

“Happiness is not out there for us to find. The reason that it’s not out there is that it’s inside us…. Happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world….”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and professor

Why don’t we derive enduring happiness from positive circumstances? A big reason is a well-documented phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation,” in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.

“If you cannot be happy right now, in the present, no matter what your circumstances,
then you will never be happy ‘one day.
’”
-Dannie De Novo, author

 

Myth: When I’m successful, I’ll be happy. (Corollary: Our happiness depends on what others think of us.)

The logic sounds reasonable: success leads to happiness. This belief is common, especially among high-performers and ambitious professionals whose identity is tied to their work and success.

But surprisingly, it works the other way around, according to the research: When we’re happy, we’re more likely to have success.

“When we are happy—when our mindset and mood are positive—we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”
-Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

 

Myth: You either have happiness or you don’t.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it gives away our agency.

Researchers have found that there are many contributors to happiness, including our genes, our circumstances, and our activities and practices.

Since some of these are out of our control, the key is to create our own happiness, as noted above, by engaging in happiness-promoting activities and in leading a good, full, and meaningful life.

“If you do the work, research shows you can become happier.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and professor

 

Myth: Having things will make us happy. (Corollary: Happiness comes from things outside of us.)

Does having things fill us up? Is accumulation and display of things likely to give us a sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment that endures?

These are myths fabricated by certain types of advertisers looking to cash in on our vanity and insecurity.

“Society teaches us that having more will make you happy, and that having more is the measure of success. Having more increases your level of stress because of the amount of energy it takes to maintain things. A lot of times when people get more things, the more they are unhappy.”
-Dee Doanes, author and small business owner

The reality is that connecting with people—with deep, lasting relationships and a sense of belonging—is a much more powerful contributor to happiness and life satisfaction.

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. Social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, if we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn out, or care so much that we lose ourselves in the process.

Helping others is a source of deep and lasting happiness, well beyond collecting or accumulating things. According to Professor Stephen G. Post at Stony Brook University, “When people help others through formal volunteering or generous actions, about half report feeling a ‘helper’s high,’ and 13% even experience alleviation of aches and pains.”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know:
the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
-Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician

Together, these connections and contributions give us a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Myth: Money will bring us happiness.

Many people live today as if the point of life was the accumulation of money. Wealth is conflated with success, making life a game in which the aim is to maximize wealth. Then we’ve won.

Not so fast.

A study of 12,000 first-year students at elite universities looked at their attitudes when they were eighteen years old and then measured their life satisfaction at age 37. The findings: those with materialistic aspirations at 18, with making money as their primary goal, were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a powerful tool. A means to larger ends. But money alone doesn’t lead to the happiness promised land. Not by a longshot.

“Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”
-C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian

 

Myth: Happiness is a destination.

The idea here is that happiness is a place we’ll arrive at. A magical land where we can bask in rays of joy. If only we could all book tickets to that magical land….

Alas.

There’s no such place. Happiness is more of a mindset and way of life, with daily intentional activities, than a destination we arrive at.

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.”
-James Oppenheim, poet and novelist

 

Myth: Happiness is pleasure.

Let’s be clear. Pleasure is great. We should savor it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a pleasant life and pleasurable experiences. But that alone won’t suffice.

In his book, Authentic Happiness, prominent psychologist Martin Seligman taught us that a full life includes not only the pleasant life but also a good life and a meaningful life.

“Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness.
It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
-Helen Keller, writer and disability rights advocate

 

Myth: Happiness is mostly about how we feel.

When we think of happiness, we’re transported to the emotional realm. We think of pleasant feelings, and perhaps nostalgia-soaked memories of good times. Professor Barbara Fredrickson identified the ten most common positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.

But it turns out that much of happiness, especially enduring happiness, comes from who and how we are, not just how we happen to be feeling.

Many ancient Greek philosophers wrote extensively about eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness,” but what they meant by it goes well beyond what we think of as happiness today. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self. It includes fulfillment of our nature.

Eudaimonia is about actions and habits, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. From this vantage point, a good life is something we should work toward every day, through our mindsets, actions, and relationships.

 

Myth: We always revert to our “happiness set point.”

There’s a common belief that we can’t do much about our happiness, so why try? “Happiness set-point theory” is the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes. The idea is that our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives, and we inevitably return to a fairly stable “happiness set point,” regardless of our circumstances. (This relates to “hedonic adaptation,” in which we rapidly accustom ourselves to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline.)

Researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model,” which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels than happiness set-point theory seems to suggest.

“…just because your happiness set point cannot be changed doesn’t mean that your happiness level cannot be changed….. Our genes do not determine our life experience and our behavior…. There’s a great deal of room to improve our happiness by the things we do, our intentional activities.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

 

Myth: We can’t be happy when we’re facing negative events.

Some view happiness as a pleasant state free from pain or negative circumstances. Sounds reasonable. But a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on negative events—or the absence of positive ones.

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
-Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-American writer and poet

The truth is that difficulty, struggle, and loss are sometimes necessary on our path toward a life of greater fulfillment and worth.

 In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis”: the idea that people need adversity and setbacks to develop and rise to their potential.

Adversity can strengthen relationships and lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for help provided. It can also cause us to revisit our priorities.

In the end, happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones. Why cede our happiness to outside circumstances, many of which are out of our control?

“The most unhelpful myth out there is that the normal state for most humans is to be happy all the time. Those who are able to accept their pain as a part of life are much better equipped to handle it and move through it.”
-Karly Hoffman King, mental health counselor

 

Myth: Happiness is a solo endeavor.

Sometimes the way we think about happiness is insular. Narcissistic even. Sometimes happiness is all about me, and how I feel, and how things are going for me.

Me, me, me.

But that misses the mark. For most people, the most important contributor to enduring happiness is the quality of our relationships, according to the research.

We can feel love or compassion when we connect with others. And we can derive a sense of meaning and belonging. We can give and receive support when we’re connected to others.

According to a 2020 Charles Schwab survey , Americans reported that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. All told, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared with 27% reporting health, 17% money, 14% lifestyle, and 3% career.

 

Myth: Happiness declines with age. (The best years of our life are over.)

There’s a pernicious but common belief out there that with age comes decline and misery. We slow down. Or lose our faculties. We become unhappy or even bitter.

Sometimes true, sure enough, but mostly a profound misconception about adult development that underestimates the tremendous growth and generativity that can accompany aging.

“aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”
-David Bowie, legendary singer and songwriter

But biases against aging persist. According to a 2020 global report based on a survey of 83,034 people in 57 countries, “At least one in every two people included in this study had moderate or high ageist attitudes.”

The reality is that older people are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch writes about the “happiness curve,” which shows that for most people happiness follows a U-shaped trajectory, starting high but dropping from youthful sentiment and optimism about life into a long, low slump in midlife, and then rising again in our fifties and continuing mostly on an upward slope from there.

In his book, The Happiness Curve, Rauch writes about the “paradox of aging,” including the following:

  • “Stress declines after about age fifty…
  • Emotional regulation improves…
  • Older people feel less regret…
  • Older people are not depression-prone.”

Rauch also notes that aging tends to come with wisdom and tools for dealing with disappointment, anxiety, and depression based on lived experience.

It seems that part of this phenomenon may be that our values change as we age. In her book, A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity, Stanford Professor Laura Carstensen writes that old age “has its share of hardships and disappointments. It’s just that by the time people get there, they’re more attuned to the sweetness of life than to its bitterness.”

“Most people think that the older you get, the less happy you are. But the truth is, the older we get, the happier we are…. Women discuss how they will take more risks and get out there more. Men discuss how they calm down a little and are less stressed.” -Diane Lang, author and counselor

Rauch characterizes aging as “crossing toward wisdom,” including less ego-centric thinking and more orientation toward others.

Clearly, there are many myths about happiness. It’s long past time to debunk these myths and their accompanying mindsets and behaviors so we can lead our lives intentionally toward happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Recommended Books on Happiness

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” -Dale Carnegie
  • “Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom.” -Benjamin Franklin
  • “The word ‘happiness’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” -Carl Gustav Jung
  • “There are times when you are going to do well, and times when you’re going to fail. But neither the doing well, nor the failure is the measure of success. The measure of success is what you think about what you’ve done. Let me put that another way: The way to be happy is to like yourself and the way to like yourself is to do only things that make you proud.” -Marc Lewis, professor of clinical psychology
  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Happiness does not depend on outward things but on the way we see them.” -Leo Tolstoy
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Important Contributor to Happiness

In our search for happiness and its close cousins, well-being and life satisfaction, we’ve seen that it’s complex. In a previous post, we noted 20 research-based practices that lead to happiness. What’s the biggest contributor to happiness?

Relationships.

 

Happiness and Relationships

“No man is an island.”
-John Donne

Connecting with others gives us a sense of worth, meaning, and belonging. When we’re in close relationship with others, we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most. And to provide it when others need it.

According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family, friends, and colleagues. They nurture and enjoy those relationships.

In her book, The How of Happiness, professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. Happier people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”

What’s going on here? Are people with close relationships happier? Or does being happy make us more likely to have close relationships with lovers, family, friends, and colleagues?

Both, it turns out. “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional,” Lyubomirsky writes. “If you begin today to improve and cultivate your relationships, you will reap the gift of positive emotions. In turn, the enhanced feelings of happiness will help you attract more and higher-quality relationships, which will make you even happier… a continuous positive feedback loop… an upward spiral.”

There’s more: social relationships give us a positive experience in the moment, but they can also strengthen and deepen relationships over time. That further increases our happiness and sense of life satisfaction.

 

The Happiness of a Lifetime

A remarkable collection of studies of mental and physical well-being has been going on for many decades. These studies track people over their entire adult lives. The Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School is a longitudinal study—started more than 80 years ago—of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. It has run in tandem with a study called the Glueck Study, which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945.

Writing about the Harvard Study of Adult Development in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The studies included evaluations at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and in many cases personal interviews. Researchers gather information about their mental and physical health, marital quality, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and more. The study and its results are described in several books by George Vaillant (a psychiatrist and professor who led the study for decades).

What were the main findings? That the people who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships. When asked what he learned from the study, Vaillant wrote:

“Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Learning from the Happiest People

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. This was the first-ever study of the behavioral and personality correlates of high happiness in people. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Health?

No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent was the strength of their social relationships. The findings:

“The very happy group differed substantially from the average and the very unhappy groups in their fulsome and satisfying interpersonal lives. The very happy group spent the least time alone and the most time socializing, and was rated highest on good relationships…. All members of the very happy group reported good-quality social relationships…. Our findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people….
We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable…. Social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them…. there appears to be no single key to high happiness that automatically produces this state…. High happiness seems to be like beautiful symphonic music—necessitating many instruments, without any one being sufficient for the beautiful quality.”

 

More Evidence about Happiness and Relationships

In his book, The Happiness Curve, award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch wrote:

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life…. The truest form of wealth is social, not material.”

The finding that happiness is sweeter when shared isn’t only known by researchers. Many of us have an intuitive sense of this. According to a Charles Schwab 2020 survey of 1,000 Americans aged 21 to 75, Americans indicated that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. According to the survey, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared to 27% reporting health, 17% saying money, 14% saying lifestyle, and 3% saying career.

This makes sense from a biological perspective. Most scientists who study happiness agree that there’s an evolutionary basis for our desire to form and preserve social connections. Social bonds, of course, help us survive and reproduce.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Happiness and Relationships during the Pandemic

Given that we’re now about two years into a global pandemic that has resulted in lockdowns, social distancing, and tectonic changes to our lives at home and work, what do we know about happiness and relationships during the time of covid-19?

The World Happiness Report 2021 included a chapter on “Social Connection and Well-Being during COVID-19,” by Karynna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Highlights from that chapter:

  • “over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being.”
  • “…social factors and social behaviors—including the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships—have also been shown to protect well-being during the pandemic.”
  • a 2020 survey in Austria found that those who had larger social networks (more social connections) reported less worry and stress during the pandemic lockdown.
  • the greater perceived threat of the covid-19 virus was linked to greater everyday acts of kindness in response.
  • a 2000 U.K. study of more than 50,000 adults found that having poor social support was associated with severe depressive symptoms.

According to this research, protective factors for psychological well-being included: feelings of connectedness, quality of relationships, positivity resonance (shared feelings of positivity and caring for one another), quantity of relationships, and prosocial (helping) behaviors such as volunteering and charitable giving.

“Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the flip side, risk factors for distress and unhappiness included: engaging in distancing, loneliness, poor social support, and abuse.

 

Social Support at Work

Since work comprises a large portion of our waking hours for many of us, what do we know about work and relationships?

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, author and researcher Shawn Achor calls social support “your single greatest asset.” He points to research on more than a thousand highly successful professional people who were interviewed as they approached retirement.

When asked what motivated them the most throughout their careers, the top response was work friendships—above the responses about financial gain and individual status.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Problem with a Lack of Social Connections

A lack of social connections is harmful to our health, can lead to depression, and can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers. Also, social support has as big an effect on life expectancy as things like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and regular physical activity.

And as we look back on our lives, we may come to regret not honoring and valuing our relationships. Three of the top 5 “regrets of the dying” that Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware famously identified in her work with people in the final weeks and months of their lives are directly related to social connections:

Regret #2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret…. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
Regret #3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others…. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
Regret #4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying…. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work—and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families—starving one of the most important parts of our life.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

We should also recognize that close relationships can also be a source of great pain in our lives. Pain from hurtful encounters. From broken trust. Pain from disappointment, and from loss.

Sometimes the pain is redeemable and can be folded back into love. Other times not.

But still relationships are a powerful source of meaning, growth, and love for us.

 

The Problem of Loneliness

Loneliness is a big problem these days—and not just in our time of social distancing and remote work.

According to a Guardian article, about 20% of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” and about a third of Americans 45 and older report being lonely.

The problem is aggravated by workaholism and the increasing prevalence of screen time in our lives, from streaming services to email and social media. The evidence is disturbing. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

 

Actions for Nurturing Our Relationships

Since relationships are so important, and since loneliness is such a big problem, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture our relationships at home and work. Here’s a punch list:

  • Making time for relationships and investing in them. Avoiding the traps of perpetual busyness or workaholism that pull us away from family and friends.
  • Being vulnerable and sharing our inner life, including our hopes and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  • Showing support for our family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  • Being loyal to them.
  • Expressing support and positive emotions, including appreciation, affection, and admiration.
  • Celebrating good news with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Managing conflict appropriately, including raising important concerns or disagreements (instead of letting them fester) while handling them appropriately (i.e., with empathy, genuine interest in their perspective, and avoiding triggers like contempt and stonewalling).
  • Sharing physical affection, including hugs and pats on the back.

Life and work are all about relationships.

Are you doing enough to maintain your close connections with the people you love, care about, and work with?
What’s the biggest contributor to happiness for you?

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Quotations on Relationships and Happiness

  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” -Brene Brown
  • “You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other. It’s exciting.” -John Gottman
  • “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
  • “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”- Brian Dyson
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
  • “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.” -Lee Iacocca
  • “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist to support the ultimate career.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” -George Moore
  • “Family is a way of holding hands with forever.” -Noah benShea
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman
  • “The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” -Sir Francis Bacon
  • “A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln
  • “Some friends leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “A society of genuine loving friends, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably priceless and powerful. A wise person would travel any distance to join it.” -Elton Trueblood
  • “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh
  • “Research has shown that among the benefits that come with being in a relationship or a group, a sense of belonging clocks in as the most important driver of meaning.” -Emily Esfahani Smith, in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What Leads to Happiness?

What leads to happiness? We all want to be happy—and for those we care about to be happy.

Here’s the problem: we’re unclear and often badly mistaken about what will bring us happiness.

We’re inundated with messages from family, friends, ads, and social media about what will make us happy. Most of these messages are wrong.

The result:

What we think will make us happy is different from what actually makes us happy.

 

What Is Happiness?

To understand what’s going on here, we should back up and clarify what we’re talking about. What is happiness?

Turns out it’s not so simple to define. Why? It’s complex, and there are many related factors: wellbeing (a good condition of existence with health, happiness, and prosperity), life satisfaction (how we feel about our lives overall and our future), pleasure, and more.

There are even different types of happiness:

  • Hedonic happiness: happiness achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment
  • Eudaimonic happiness: happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world.

My favorite definition of happiness (because it’s so comprehensive) comes from University of California, Riverside psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Don’t stop there, though. Decide for yourself what happiness is for you. And then turn your attention to the next step: what leads to it?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Determinants of Happiness: What Leads to Happiness

The question of what leads to happiness presumes that we have agency over it. That’s actually the source of some debate.

Enter “happiness set-point theory,” the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes and personality traits. According to this theory, our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives. We inevitably return to a relatively stable “happiness set point,” regardless of circumstances. (Note also the related notion of hedonic adaptation, in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.)

Many researchers have questioned this happiness set-point theory. Some have noted that it really speaks to a fixed range of potential happiness and wellbeing, not a single set point.

 

Sustainable Happiness Model

In their prominent article, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model” (SHM), which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels. They noted that happiness is “governed by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

They went on to give preliminary estimates for the “approximate percentage of the variance that each of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research”:

  • genetics account for about 50% of the population variance in happiness
  • circumstances account for about 10%
  • activities and practices account for about 40%

This “happiness pie chart,” as it was dubbed, had important implications:

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside

This was encouraging for those of us seeking to influence our happiness (which is, well, all of us).

 

Revisiting the Data

But then the plot thickened. Some researchers critiqued the paper. In response, two of the original researchers, Lyubomirsky and Sheldon, revisited the “happiness pie chart” in a response via a 2019 follow-up paper. (1)

They stood by their main findings but recognized that the 40% estimate for activities may have been an overestimate and noted some important nuances. First, the three factors mentioned (genes, circumstances, and activities) aren’t isolated factors. Clearly, they influence each other. For example, our genes can influence our tendency to engage in certain activities, like exercise, that influence our happiness. And our circumstances and activities can influence whether genes are expressed, depending on the context of our lives.

Also, the percentages given were preliminary estimates—never meant to represent precise numbers for individuals but rather how much of the differences in happiness among people generally come from different sources. Individual results and factors will vary. “Like all pie charts,” Lyubomirsky noted, “ours was a gross oversimplification.”

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Here’s the bottom line:

“Although the pie chart part may have outlived its usefulness, we stand behind the central premise of the SHM, and the supportive research it spawned. Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy.’”
-Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2019 follow-up article

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are nuances, given the complexity of happiness and all its influences. So how does this speak to how we should live?

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Different Types of Lives

In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:

  1. The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings
  2. The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork, with each person having their own unique set) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification,” which comes when we invoke our strengths and virtues, as when we achieve “flow.”
  3. The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.

 

 

Most of Western society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting.

“For centuries, traditional wisdom has been that simply seeking pleasure for its own sake
doesn’t really make you happy in the long run.

-Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, Florida State University

Seligman notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” which he describes as “experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning.”

Helpful stuff. But we’re still back to the question: What leads to happiness (and a full life)?

 

What Leads to Happiness? Actions that Boost Happiness

According to an ever-growing body of research, there are many things we can do to bring happiness to our lives—and to increase our sense of life satisfaction. Here are 20 effective ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity: moving our bodies regularly, ideally with some vigor. Since our mind and body are connected, our physical activity can have powerful effects on our moods. Exercise has several spillover benefits:
    • helping us unplug from our devices
    • getting us outside more
    • helping us sleep better, which is essential for everything we do
    • releasing endorphins, which give us pleasure
    • reducing anxiety and stress
    • giving us feelings of mastery or motivation, and sometimes getting us into a state of flow
  1. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity: caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, as long as we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn ourselves out, or care so much that we get lost in the problems or despair of others.
  2. Purpose and meaning: having a sense of why we’re here and what gives us a sense of deeper significance and connection with something larger than ourselves. This doesn’t have to be grand or complicated. It can begin with worthy activities: engaging in activities that feel meaningful and based on virtues like character and generosity. When we show up as a good person living purposefully—serving others, forgiving people, giving back, being grateful for what we have, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—we end up feeling happier and more fulfilled. It can be parenting or grandparenting—or volunteering, mentoring, or day-to-day acts of service. And it can entail meaningful work, community building, religious worship, or spiritual connection and growth.
  3. Relationships with others: connecting with others helps us feel love. It gives us a sense of meaning, self-worth, significance, and belonging. It also means we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most. And to provide it when others need it most. According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family and friends. They nurture and enjoy those relationships.
  4. Goals and Aspirations: having a deep commitment to lifelong goals and ambitions (like parents teaching children their values), ideally “self-concordant goals” (ones that are intrinsically interesting and congruent with our identity). This gives us things to work toward and look forward to. It’s highly motivating, especially with intrinsic aspirations, not extrinsic ones (where the motivation is to seek rewards or avoid punishments). Note: Goals should be challenging, but not too challenging (lest we get deflated for failing to achieve unrealistic goals).
  5. Authentic expression of self: being true to who we really are and avoiding the traps of wearing a mask, people pleasing, or caring too much about what others think.
  1. Anticipation: having something to look forward to (e.g., a vacation, date nights, wedding).
“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.”
-Albert Camus, French philosopher
  1. Gratitude: being thankful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and health. Activities such as daily gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who’ve helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  2. Experiences: enjoying encounters and activities that are engaging and fun. Tip: consider spending money more on activities (e.g., live shows or social dinners), not so much on things (clothes or gadgets).
  3. Learning and developing: learning new things and boosting our skills and capacities engages our curiosity, challenges us, helps our brains make connections across domains, and gives us a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
  4. Meditation and mindfulness practices: activities that help us experience focused attention and achieve a heightened state of awareness can contribute significantly to our happiness and wellbeing. This includes stopping and noticing what’s going on around and within us. It helps us get in touch with our feelings and experience them (which is much better than avoiding or suppressing them, which can be toxic). And it helps us focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  5. Person-activity fit: engaging in activities that feel enjoyable and natural to us, and that are aligned with our personality, goals, interests, and values. It also means not doing things out of guilt or due to outside pressures or expectations.
  6. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative: look for the good in things and practice optimism when imagining our future. According to researchers, humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It’s important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  7. Journaling: Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help us create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through our feelings with others.)
  8. Resilience in the face of adversity: invoking our ability to withstand challenges and bounce back from difficult events, showing poise and strength in the process. Since suffering is part of life, we must learn how to deal with it—and ideally grow and learn in the process.
  9. Savoring: fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, thereby extending them. Living in the present moment and appreciating what we have.
  10. Self-care: taking actions to preserve or improve our health and wellbeing, including during periods of stress. We neglect this at our peril, as it’s foundational to the other things.
  11. Strengths: knowing and doing the things that we’re good at, including knowledge, talents, and skills. Ideally, we design our lives and work around them, as opposed to harping on our weaknesses. And we work with others who have different strengths.
  12. Intentional and effective use of time: intentional planning and deployment of our time, such that our actual use of time approaches our ideal use of time. How much of our precious time are we wasting?
“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American psychologist
  1. Variety: mixing things up and breaking old patterns. Even with good things that we enjoy, we can fall into ruts and lose motivation. Our brains enjoy new stimuli. As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.”
“…the pursuit of happiness requires selecting self-appropriate and eudaimonic-type activities (rather than chasing after positive emotions directly); investing sustained (rather than desultory) effort in those activities; and also, practicing them in a varied and changing manner (rather than doing them the same way each time). By such means, people can create for themselves a steady inflow of engaging, satisfying, connecting, and uplifting positive experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood that they remain in the upper range of their happiness potentials.”
-Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here’s the good news: there’s much we can do to boost our happiness and wellbeing. The point isn’t that we have to do all of these happiness-generating activities. Why not try some new ones? And why not design your days more intentionally?

In the end, our happiness is up to us. What leads to happiness for you?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Relevant Theories

  • Eudaimonic Activity Model: suggests that engaging in growth-promoting (eudaimonic) goals and intentional behaviors helps people satisfy their basic psychological needs, which results in elevated happiness and wellbeing.
  • Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model: describes the different ways we tend to become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and settle into our happiness baseline as if nothing had occurred. (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012)
  • Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM): a framework for research on how to boost and maintain happiness over time via intentional behaviors and other interventions.

(1) Kennon M. Sheldon & Sonja Lyubomirsky (2019): Revisiting the Sustainable Happiness Model and Pie Chart: Can Happiness Be Successfully Pursued?, The Journal of Positive Psychology.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Happiness Is the Wrong Goal

Let’s face it. We’re obsessed with happiness:

Am I happy?
I just want to be happy.
I want my kids to be happy.
Why doesn’t my job make me happy?
Why doesn’t my relationship make me happy?

We tend to view happiness as the point of life.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out to be counterproductive.

Happiness is the wrong goal.

To understand why and how, let’s back up and examine what we’re talking about.

There are many ways to think about happiness. We often think of it as feeling contentment or pleasure. But there’s more to it.

An excellent definition comes from happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky (also a psychology professor):

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being,
combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher

Here we see that happiness can include two important elements:

  • the current experience of positive emotions like pleasure and joy
  • an overall sense of life satisfaction, with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose

In the U.S., we have a long tradition of reverence for happiness. Even the Declaration of Independence noted our unalienable right not only to life and liberty but also to “the pursuit of happiness.”

This isn’t only an American phenomenon. The World Happiness Report has been published for a decade now. The United Kingdom began measuring national wellbeing ten years ago, following the Kingdom of Bhutan in Asia, which had already been measuring not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.”

 

The Larger Context of Happiness

One of the challenges with achieving happiness is that there’s a lot to it. It comes with many associated feelings and related notions, including: circumstances (positive or negative), contentment, flourishing, fulfillment, joy, life satisfaction, meaning, mood, quality of life, self-actualization, self-evaluation, success, and wellbeing. Phew!

To understand happiness, we also need to think about unpleasant feelings like sadness, disappointment, anxiety, depression, neuroticism, rumination, and more. That brings up the related issues of adversity, adaptation, and resilience. Clearly, happiness isn’t just about beaches, butterflies, and rainbows.

What’s more, how we think about happiness has changed dramatically over time. Nowadays, we seem to have lost important ideas from ancient times. Enter “eudaimonia.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

 

Eudaimonia—A Deeper Form of Happiness

Many ancient Greek philosophers focused on what they called “eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness” (and sometimes as “wellbeing” or “human flourishing”), but the roots of the word literally mean the condition of “good spirit.”

What they meant by eudaimonia goes well beyond our modern notion of happiness. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good. It included fulfillment of human nature in an excellent way. He wrote that eudaimonia entails “doing and living well.” In other words, living a good life.

Here we encounter an important difference: eudaimonia is about habits and actions, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. This is actually a long-running debate between the hedonistic tradition (seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones) and the eudaimonic tradition (living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, in accordance with virtue and excellence).

To the ancients in the eudaimonic tradition, a good life is the quest of a lifetime. It’s something you work toward every day, through your actions, mindsets, and relationships. Today, must of that seems lost.

 

Stoicism and Happiness

In Stoic philosophy, achieving eudaimonia requires the practice of virtue (rightful action in the world).

The idea is that we can only flourish by living an ethical life, practicing certain virtues (like courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation), and living in accordance with nature. Through right thinking and virtuous action, we can become emotionally resilient to negative events and misfortune.

We can develop self-control and mental strength to overcome harmful emotions that result from errors of judgment. This can help us be free from unproductive emotions like anger and envy.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

 

Buddhism and Happiness

Buddhism focuses on liberation from suffering, including overcoming craving and helping us accept life’s irrefutable truths. It encourages compassion, loving kindness, and a desire for the welfare of all beings.

Buddhist practice includes cultivation of attention and fostering a state of awareness, nonstriving, and detachment (or nonattachment).

A higher aspiration is nirvana, a state of everlasting peace through the release of worldly suffering.

Clearly, there are many paths and practices, old and new, related to happiness.

 

Happiness in Difficult Circumstances

While some view happiness as a pleasant state free from suffering, pain, or negative circumstances, a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on such things.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche urged us to recognize the value of difficulties in life, including suffering and unhappiness, since things of great worth can sometimes only be earned through difficulty and struggle.

A 2012 study by Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that mixed emotional experience (that is, concurrent positive and negative emotional experience, like happiness and sadness) is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological wellbeing.

The issue here is whether to express or suppress negative emotions (like sadness or grief) when things are difficult. One model (called a “co-activation model”) recommends “taking the good with the bad”: “when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier bereavement process.”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
-Kahlil Gibran

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis,” which holds that people need adversity and setbacks to reach the heights of personal development, strength, and fulfillment.

Most people have heard about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but not as many know about “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change after struggling with stressful and challenging circumstances. This can occur when we cope well with adversity and turn it into something valuable (such as life lessons, wisdom, or serenity).

Adversity can strengthen relationships by invoking vulnerability and opening our hearts to each other. And it can lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for the help and caring provided. Haidt notes that it can also reorder our priorities (away from the future and toward the present, and away from ourselves and toward others).

It turns out that happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones (though it’s hard to fault people for striving for that).

Are we really going to cede our happiness to the fickle Fates and precarious fortune, according to whether things happen to be going well in our life?

Some of the things that bring us deeper happiness, wellbeing, and an overall sense of life satisfaction include adversity, pain, and suffering, as long as they include avenues of deeper meaning or connection.

 

The Wrong Goal, The Right Goal

Happiness is the wrong goal. And so is success. And wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Prestige. Comfort. Pleasure.

These aren’t bad. They’re just destined to disappoint. They won’t make us happy.

A better goal, I think, is to live a good life. A life of vitality, connection, and contribution, as Jonathan Fields advises in his book, How to Live a Good Life.

A life of purpose, close relationships, and serving others. How about a life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience?

A life of joy and savoring. How about a life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others?

What does a good life mean for you?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” -William Feather
  • “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self.” -Erich Fromm
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” -Helen Keller
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” -John Milton (from Paradise Lost)
  • “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim
  • “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley

 

Definitions of Key Terms

  • Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Subjective wellbeing: how we experience and evaluate the quality of our lives, including frequent positive affect (the extent to which we experience positive moods), infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction. Sometimes distinctions are made between different types (e.g., mental, physical, economic, and emotional wellbeing).
  • Life satisfaction: how we feel about our lives overall and our future. It’s a measure of wellbeing assessed in terms of mood, satisfaction (with relationships and achieved goals), and our perceived ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Here, researchers note the difference between “affective happiness” (felt in our momentary emotions) and “evaluative happiness” (our sense of our entire life).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!