These are the myths in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book – The Myths of Happiness. Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and a major contributor in the field of positive psychology. These myths come up a lot with my clients so I thought I would extract the major learnings, and create a book report of sorts… if only my 12 year old self could see me now!
The first part of her book is based on connections…
Myth #1: I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person.
People romanticize about this one, yet it is best to be cautious before rushing into marriage. Lyubomirsky provides the perfect descriptor ‘I’ve heard that the stress of divorce is equivalent to the stress of experiencing a car crash every day for 6 months.’ Research has shown that a sizable boost in happiness following marriage only lasts about 2 years. This is a byproduct of hedonic adaptation, which is when you adapt or take for granted the things that your thought would always bring you joy. Another consideration is that there are two types of love, passionate and companionate… which is important to understand, as oftentimes couples describe a loss of passion in their once passionate relationship. Passionate love is a state of intense longing, desire, and attraction whereas companionate is a deeper affection, connection, and liking. Passionate is necessary to build up new relationships, whereas companionate is critical for nourishing a committed stable partnership long enough to reproduce… we can see why evolutionarily this was important, yet it is not necessarily conducive to sustaining healthy long term marriages.
Myth #2: I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart.
Oftentimes people stay in relationships although they have fallen apart… research shows that a troubled marriage presents as big a risk factor for heart disease as a regular smoking habit, so it is best to address rather than avoid what is not working. Sometimes that is just it… it no longer works and although this can be seemingly devastating, it is also an opportunity to reach out for social support. Lyubomirsky provides the example ‘you will judge the hill to be less steep when with a friend’ Another way to get back to happiness is through forgiveness. Forgiveness is said to release anger and hatred, improve relationships, and ultimately make us happier and healthier. It has been found to reduce grievances, minimize intrusive negative, angry, or depressive thoughts, bolster optimistic thinking, foster contentment with life, promote commitment and satisfaction in a marriage, improve physical health and even boost productivity at work. What other compelling reasons could you want?
Myth #3: I’ll be happy when I have kids.
Analysis of more than 100 studies revealed that couples who were followed before and after the birth of a child, suffered seemingly permanent declines in their relationship satisfaction. If your children are very young, step, or troubled, then being a parent will likely make you less happy and less satisfied with your life and partner. Other research shows that happiness after having a second child is significantly lower than the first and that when the last child leaves the home, marital satisfaction soars. As put by Lyubomirsky ‘Children are a huge source of joy but they turn every other source of joy to shit.’
Myth #4: I need a partner to be happy.
Although ‘happily’ married people who have never divorced are healthier and live longer than those who divorce, people who have always been single are just as healthy as those who have always been married, and they live just as long. That’s a good thing too, because although it may not seem like it, half of all adults in the US are single (this statistic is still accurate as of 2019). Single people really do have rewarding, lasting, and meaningful relationships – they continue to develop new friendships as they age, and stay in better touch with friends. Close companions of singles are people they have chosen whereas the close companions of marrieds are frequently chosen for them.
The second part of her book dives into myths about happiness as it relates to work and money…
Myth #5: Landing my dream job will make me happy.
Studies show that you go through a honeymoon period with a job change but within a year your satisfaction with the job returns to your original pre-move level. This is another example of hedonic adaptation. It might seem that the job you used to find special becomes our right and privilege. Sticking with the theme of privilege, research has shown that people who are more educated are less satisfied with their lives. It is also best practice to refrain from letting social comparisons get to you… be happy for others achievements and do not compare them to your own. Empirical evidence shows that goal pursuit only makes us happy if we enjoy the journey rather than focusing entirely on the destination. Many of us forget to celebrate and savor the steps we accomplish on the way to reaching our goal.
Myth #6: I can’t be happy when i’m broke.
Wealth makes us happy when we are thinking about our lives, but money has a much smaller impact on our day to day feelings. Research has shown that materialists report less satisfaction and meaning in their lives, have emptier social relationships, are more insecure, and are less liked by others than people who are not materialistic. Although owning a home is one of the most sought after goals, Home owners are actually less happy than renters. They tend to spend more time on housework and less time interacting with their social network. Having less means we are more likely to pull together, show concern for others and help one another.
Myth #7: I’ll be happy when I’m rich.
Human beings are programmed to desire, not appreciate, and to strive for more, rather than be content with what they have. It turns out that, the wealthier the individual, the smaller percentage of his or her income goes to charity – with american families making over 300K a year donating a mere 4% of their incomes, and billionaires donating less. Societal norms depict white collar jobs, huge homes, luxurious vacations… none of which is correlated with happiness.
The last part of her book is about losing hope…
Myth #8 I will never recover from this diagnosis.
What you choose to focus on becomes part of your life and the rest falls out. There really is power in positive thinking, and the body really is more likely to achieve what the mind believes. There is no denying that there is unjust suffering in the world, and it is not appropriate to be happy about it, yet you can be grateful for your own fortune. Happiness is not defined by how intensely it is felt, it is moreso defined by how often we feel it. It never helped anyone to defer your own happiness until all the world’s problems have been solved.
Myth #9: I can’t be happy when I have regrets.
There are different types of reflection. Types of beneficial reflection are deliberate, analytical, philosophical, curious, intellectual or self aware. Whereas reflection can be detrimental when it is circular, intrusive, neurotic, and uncontrollable. We experience greater happiness and life purpose when we are able to look at our lives through a lens that depicts our experiences as critical pieces of a significant journey, rather than fleeting moments that should have been something other than what they were. You can never regret an action you never took, yet regrets over inactions magnify over time.
Myth #10: The best years of my life are over…
On average, older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people. They tend to sweat the small stuff less, experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. It is good practice to replay good times, rather than analyzing them. We can analyze and learn from the unfortunate times, yet there is little need to replay them often.
When we begin to recognize that our years are limited we fundamentally change our perspective about life.
Begin changing your perspective now, because life is too precious to believe myths.