3 common thoughts about happiness that may be harming you

I want to become happier, I wonder what it takes.

Do you ever say that to yourself?

I do.

And I can tell you that happiness isn’t happening while I’m sitting there pondering.

In fact, research has shown that there’s a whopping, great split between what we think will make us happy, and what actually does. 

For me, it’s not just about being happier, but about understanding the root cause of the reasons it often escapes us.

I remember the thrill of being a research assistant in a psychological study on happiness even back in 2008 when I was at the University of Minnesota. Along with my steeping in ancient, Eastern knowledge, I’ve discovered that happiness is an assimilation of wisdom, a digestion of knowledge through experience in daily life.

Researching happiness is a huge phenomenon, and I can see why.

Psychologists have now come together with economists wanting to find out what people value, and neuroscientists wanting to find out what happens in the brain. These three separate disciplines all interested in a single topic has put that topic on the scientific map. 

Papers are published in Science, companies are bringing experts in to measure and increase the happiness of employees, and governments all over the world are rushing to figure this out too.

The result has been striking information that may go against some of the things you take for granted about happiness.


1 / We think it’s the big things (it’s the small things)

When we think about what would make us happy, we tend of think of intense events, like falling in love, winning the Nobel Prize, taking that epic vacation, or buying a house.

But however intensely good your experiences are, it doesn’t matter. How many good experiences you have matters. 

So happiness on the job may depend more on our moment-to-moment experiences with coworkers, the projects we’re involved in, and our daily contributions than on the conditions we thought to provide happiness, like a prestigious title.

Ed Diener’s research finding shows that essentially, “the frequency of your positive experiences is a much better predictor of your happiness than is the intensity of your positive experiences.” 

Someone with a dozen mildly good things happening each day is likely to be happier than someone who has a single amazing thing happen. Sure, a higher salary could make you happy to some degree, but not much and not for long.

We all know how our happiness varies from moment to moment. Interestingly, the the data shows that too, pointing to the fact that unwavering happiness comes from something else other than the changing conditions in our lives.

Contrary to what we may think, it’s not even the long-term condition of our lives, such as where we live or whether we’re married that are the principle drivers of happiness.

It could be the small, everyday things that matter most.

What you can do

Wear comfortable shoes, kiss your wife, meditate, sneak a sweet potato fry. It sounds like small stuff, and it is — but the small stuff matters.

2 / We need more time to think

Thanks to smartphone technology, researchers like Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, are doing first-ever large-scale studies of happiness in daily life. He’s excited to answer questions like, how do the moment-by-moment details our day affect our happiness?

They’re finding that people’s minds wander nearly half the time, and this appears to lower their mood. Here’s a trip, take a look down a busy street and consider than nearly half the people aren’t really there!

The amount of mind-wandering varies depending the activity, from 60% of the time while commuting to 30% when talking to someone or playing a game to 10% during sex. You’d think that if people’s minds are wandering while they’re having fun, then those thoughts must be about something pleasant, but it’s not the case.

No matter what people are doing, they are much less happy when their minds are wandering than when their minds are focused.

What you can do

Master your mind. We travel back and forth from the present moment to day dream all the time. In just a sec, close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out. Be aware of your breathing whole time, then open your eyes — that was present moment, or here and now. Know where you’re at on the daydream / present moment spectrum. A focused mind is a happy mind.

Participants were queried about mood and mind-wandering during 22 activities. The balls represent their activities and thoughts. The farther to the right a ball is, the happier people were on average. The larger the ball, the more frequently they engaged in that activity or thought.

Participants were queried about mood and mind-wandering during 22 activities. The balls represent their activities and thoughts. The farther to the right a ball is, the happier people were on average. The larger the ball, the more frequently they engaged in that activity or thought.


3 / We need pressure to get stuff done

Have you ever had the feeling that without the judge rattling around in your head, you’ve never get to work and let your deadlines pass? You’d rarely clean the house and start eating really bad? I’ve heard a similar story countless times from my students.

We think that without sharp judgements, we wouldn’t be our best in our work. On top of that critical faculty is required for success in most of our work, from a Wall Street trader, to being a parent, to an ICU doctor.

You actually don't have to adhere to the inner critic to get it done. The difference is between the judgement (a negative habit) and discernment (a necessary tool).

Self-judgement is reactive, value-laden, and feels like a threat. Discernment is clearer, and leaves some room for further perspective. 

What you can do

Stay focused and watch the pressurized self-judgement. People thrive when challenged, but wither when threatened.

I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.
— Charles Schwab

With our varying preferences and personalities there may be nothing across the board that incites happiness for all of us, except for maybe pizza.

But we all have what it takes to 1/ find happiness in normal daily things  2/ fine-tune focus skills, and 3 / challenge ourselves without the self-critical edge.

Happiness could be in focusing the mind to be present to the small, everyday things without criticism.  That's what matters most — our experiences within our relationships, the projects we’re involved in, and our daily contributions.

Do we want the average happiness of our lives to be as big as possible or do we want the sum of our happy moments to be as big as possible? Do we want life free of pain, aging and heartbreak, or is there value in those experiences?

What kind of life we want to live is for us to decide.

Lauren ZieglerComment