Happiness seems to be the topic that is on everyone's minds. And everyone seems to have a different opinion about it and how to achieve it. But never have we ever had as much research about happiness as we do now. We actually have people dedicated to finding out what makes us happy - including psychologists like Dan Gilbert and happiness experimenters like Gretchen Rubin. And they're all saying the same 3 things - that somehow contradict things that you may be hearing on the street. In fact, common wisdom about happiness oftentimes directly contradicts the research.
Misconception #1 – Happiness is something you get when you get what you want
Fact - Happiness starts within you
How many people are telling themselves that they will be happy once a certain positive event happens and will be miserable if a certain negative event happens. Getting a job promotion, getting a hot significant other, and winning the lottery are all associated with happiness. On the flipside, losing your job, losing your eyesight, and missing out on a great opportunity are things we associate with unhappiness. And yet, though the initial injection of positive or negative emotion may be real, over and over again, research shows that those who experience happy events and those who experience unhappy events rate themselves as roughly the same in terms of happiness over time. Logically speaking, events in themselves are way overrated.
What really matters then? Research shows that a mere 10% of our happiness can be roughly attributed to events, a much larger portion to our genetics (50%), and 40% on our intentional activities. These intentional activities range from things like our interpretation of events, being grateful, ability to reflect and meditate, taking care of your body with sleep and exercise. This is good news as it shows that much of our happiness lies within us and can be affected by what we choose to believe and focus on.
Misconception #2 – Happiness is about gaining things for yourself
Fact - Happiness is about other people and giving to other people
Jean-Paul Sartre famously quoted as saying that 'Hell is other people'. And most certainly, we have all experienced a moment where we'd agree with such an assertion. That being said, research shows that happiness is other people too. In fact, it's not even about the happiness that comes when people give us things (which feels pretty good). It's actually the substantial boost in happiness when we give to others. This is most definitely not common knowledge. We try so hard to protect ourselves and preserve our assets. If we are unhappy, we think it best to clutch even harder to 'what is ours'. We fear loss and we share less of our goods, we share less quality time with others, and volunteer less in hopes that we aren't giving our happiness away. And people who seek revenge do so thinking that seeing another suffer will bring about happiness. But as the famous quote says, "before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves". So who knew that self-preservation at the cost of others was so fundamentally detrimental to our happiness.
Research has shown that the top activities that contribute to well-being and happiness are to practice compassion/lovingkindness and gratefulness towards others. Matthew Ricard is a monk who had his brain measured in an MRI scanner. So while he meditated on compassion and loving others - he actually scored the highest in terms of happiness. Happy people also have the tightest networks - strong relationships anchor us. Gratefulness towards others has also been shown to provide us with a greater happiness. Being generously other-centred then seems to lead to the happiest people in the world.
Misconception #3 – Happiness is a luxury, we really need to focus on work
Fact - Happiness can create success
So we started off that saying that outside circumstances do not bring happiness over the long-term. So it's funny, because research has shown that happiness can actually help bring about good outcomes, both professionally and personally. It gives the effect that people actually feel lucky. So it's funny that once we can let go of the idea that outside circumstances bring happiness and we focus on others - we can actually create better circumstances for ourselves. Shawn Achor has conducted much research relating to this phenomenon – and found that with increased happiness, “every single business and educational outcome we know how to test for improves dramatically.”
Essentially, those who are generous, grateful, forgiving, and aren't tied to their outer circumstances are happiest. And good things start to happen for them. Fortunately, these are all things we can learn and apply with intentional activity.