Mental Health

A Harvard psychologist says too many people think about happiness all wrong

Japanese women wearing kimonos smile after their Coming of Age Day celebration ceremony at an amusement park in Tokyo, Japan January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Obsessing over your happiness can only make you more unhappy. Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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Mental Health

Generally speaking, trying hard is a great way to achieve most of what you want in life.

Put in more effort at work and your prospects for a promotion will almost definitely improve — at least more than they would if you simply accepted the status quo of being a slacker.

Date a lot of people and you'll have a better chance of meeting your soulmate than if you stayed at home moping on the couch.

So if it's happiness you want, it makes sense to think that actively trying to be happier is the sure path to getting there, especially compared to resigning yourself to a future of never smiling again.

But psychologists are increasingly discovering that when it comes to happiness, trying can backfire. Instead, the paradoxical key to true happiness seems to be accepting unhappiness — not forcing yourself to feel how you don't.

Susan David calls it "showing up" to your emotions.

David is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of the book "Emotional Agility." In the book, she teaches readers to deal with their emotions in a healthy way, so that they're neither hiding them nor letting their feelings control their behavior.

Once you learn to reckon with your emotions, David argues, you'll live a fuller, more authentic life.

When I met with David in August, she told me:

"When we have a particular goal around happiness, what it can lead us to doing is to marking every disappointment, every setback, every concern as being proof that we're not happy enough or almost proof that we've failed in our attempt to be happy. And it's just not a realistic way of living."

People who are obsessed with being happy tend to wind up less happy than everyone else

There's a growing body of evidence behind this idea.

In the book, David cites a study that found people who were asked to read about the benefits of happiness were less happy after watching a happy film than people who read something unrelated.

Meanwhile, last year I reported on research that found the more people value happiness (for example, by strongly agreeing with the statement, "If I don't feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me,"), the lower their overall well-being.

David had some insight on why this might be true: "When people are very unhappy and are focused on thinking positive, what it can actually lead them to do is to then push difficult thoughts and emotions aside."

Think of it as sweeping your difficult feelings under the rug inside your mental living room. Sure, it looks perfect, but it's only a matter of time before the junk starts spilling out.

Paying attention to negative emotions is key

David said it's important to pay close attention to those negative emotions, because they're usually trying to tell you something. For example, maybe you feel frustrated with your boss. The quick fix would be to minimize your frustration and pretend that everything's fine.

Instead, David encourages people to explore that frustration — maybe you're upset because your boss didn't give a coworker due credit for a project. What that signals to you is that fairness is a really important value for you.

"That information is really, really important," David said. "So what happens when we focus too much on being happy is we actually push aside critical information that helps us to learn and adapt in our lives. And that helps us to forge a life that is connected with our own heartbeat."

That's where "showing up" comes in:

"What I mean by 'showing up' is stopping any struggle that you might have within yourself about whether you should feel something, shouldn't feel something, should think something, shouldn't think something, whether it's a bad thought or good thought."

It's just a thought.

"In a weird way," David said, "acceptance is a precursor to change."

When you listen to those negative emotions, and when you let them arise without judgment, you gain valuable information that lets you tweak your life accordingly.

In an extreme example, maybe you're in the wrong job and it's time to find a new one. Or maybe you simply need to do a better job of advocating for yourself at work.

These ideas are rooted in mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judging them. David's work suggests that you don't necessarily have to start a meditation practice to become more mindful (though that would probably help) — it's more about learning to be generally open to whatever you're thinking and feeling, all day long.

Ultimately, the goal is to be — rather than to be happy, which is somewhat freeing.

Here's David:

"Our contract with life is a contract that is brokered with fragility, and with sadness, and with anxiety. And if we're going to authentically and meaningfully be in this world, we cannot focus on one dimension of life and expect that focusing on that dimension is going to then give us a well-rounded life."

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