According to psychologist Sophia Godkin, PhD, who also goes by "The Happiness Doctor," many people struggle with finding and defining happiness, "and a large part of that is not their fault," she says. "We’re taught to believe that happiness is one thing when really it might very well be something different.” So, what, exactly, is happiness? "Happiness is...our ability to be okay—no matter what. It's our ability to be content, regardless of what's going on in life,” she says.
As far as being able to access that continuous positive contentment, happiness myths—though often coming from a well-intentioned place—threaten to keep it away from us. So, now that you’re clear on what happiness is, read on to learn what happiness is not—by way of six happiness myths that experts want you to stop believing.
6 happiness myths, busted by experts
1. There’s something wrong if you’re not happy all the time
Though it might seem counterintuitive, there’s something to be said for the experience of sadness being an effective means to boost your happiness. Moreover, positive and not-so-positive emotions can coexist in such a way that doesn't stop you from being a happy person.
“When we feel that we have to be happy or positive all the time, we engage in a thought process that blocks out what’s normal [variety of emotion].” —Sophia Godkin, PhD, happiness psychologist
“Happiness is independent of the emotions that you feel,” says Dr. Godkin, who adds that it’s human nature to experience a spectrum of emotions that include not just positive ones. So, feeling sad, angry, hurt, rejected, or jealous doesn't automatically mean someone isn't happy. “When we feel that we have to be happy or positive all the time, we engage in a thought process that blocks out what’s normal [variety of emotion],” Dr. Godkin adds.
So, instead of pushing your “negative” emotions away—which is ill-advised because avoidance won't change anything for you—try embracing them and introspecting as to why they might be popping up for you. That way, you can better understand yourself (rather than berate yourself for feeling inconveniently) and be proud that you got yourself through a rough patch.
2. External factors can bring you happiness
If you believe money, vacations, a perfect partner, kids, or other features of life will alone make you a happy person, positive-psychology expert and celebrity happiness coach Robert Mack has a hard truth to share: “A lot of the happiness myths come from a sort of snapshot or short-term experience of pleasure, anticipation, or excitement," he says. "[Those things] can often be mistaken for happiness," but in reality, happiness isn't an item, but a state of being.
While some of those aforementioned components may contribute to fulfillment and a positive outlook on life, the belief that happiness is a commodity to attain is dangerous because there will always be something else to chase. Ultimately, happiness is an internal state, and remembering this can help you tap into that emotion whenever you need a boost.
3. You can’t experience happiness when things aren't working out the way you wanted
If you find yourself thinking, I can't be happy unless everything's going how I want, you’re putting an unnecessary conditionality on your happiness, says Dr. Godkin. “The reality is [you] can be happy no matter whether things are going [your] way or not,” she adds.
Practicing gratitude—like penning in a gratitude journal—can be helpful for safeguarding you from this pitfall, Dr. Godkin says, because it provides a way for you to understand that you can be, will be, and are okay, even when something doesn’t go according to plan.
4. Someone can’t create a happy future if they had an unhappy past
This is a top happiness myth Dr. Godkin wants people to stop believing because it aims to strip people of their agency to change a given circumstance. “Yes, you might have had a difficult past, [but] you can still have a happy future,” she says. “There's a lot of capacity for healing that exists when we can work through understanding our past.” As long as you show yourself love and compassion, you’re well on your way to creating a happy future.
5. Happiness is fixed or not changeable
“Happiness is perfectly plastic, malleable, changeable, and improvable,” says Mack. “Unlike eye color or height, your genetic set point for happiness is changeable. You can rewire it.”
Dr. Godkin shares this perspective with Mack, adding that “through applied work [like therapy], you can see that you have the power to change what you experience, which eventually has a domino effect on your life,” she says.
6. Happiness is a state of mind
The truth? According to Mack, happiness is a state of being. There’s no doubt that having an optimistic mindset can lead you to feel better about your circumstances, but assuming happiness is only a state of mind is a myth—one that may keep you from acknowledging the powerful fact that you can access that feeling at any time. “Happiness is a constellation of things. It’s emotions, it’s meaning in life, it’s purpose, it’s social connection,” adds Dr. Godkin. “It’s not as fleeting as a state of mind or a feeling.”
So, consider engaging with happiness as a skill. Dr. Godkin says doing so can help you internalize the notion that you can work on your happiness. “I often say that happiness is a skill that you can learn. It's something that we can build, and we build it as we build any skill...over time,” she says.
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