Nearly all of us buy into what I call the myths of happiness—beliefs that certain achievements (marriage, kids, jobs) will make us forever happy and that certain adversities (health problems, divorce, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. Overwhelming research evidence, however, reveals that there is no magic formula for happiness. Rather, both major life moments and crisis points can be opportunities for renewal and meaningful change—or for disappointment and sorrow. It’s how you greet these moments that really matters.
Myth 1: “I need a partner.”
Multiple studies show that single people are no less happy than married ones, and that singles have been found to enjoy great happiness and meaning in other relationships and pursuits. Unfortunately, believing in this myth may be toxic: Not recognizing the rewards of singlehood (such as more time to spend with friends or engaging in solo projects and adventures) may lead us to settle for a poor romantic match.
Myth 2: “Landing my dream job will make me happy.”
At the root of this myth is the misconception that, although we’re not happy now, we’ll surely be on cloud nine when we land that dream job. And yet even when we’re hired for that seemingly perfect job or we finally make our entrepreneurial hopes a reality, the happiness is short-lived. What explains this unwelcome experience is the inexorable process of hedonic adaptation—namely, the fact that human beings have the remarkable capacity to grow inured to most life changes. Understanding the power of hedonic adaptation may compel us to jettison perfectly good careers. Everyone becomes habituated to the novelty, excitement and challenges of a new job or business venture. There may be nothing wrong with the job or with our motivation or work ethic. The fact may be that we are simply experiencing a naturally occurring, all-too-human process.
Myth 3: “I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person.”
Marriage, even when initially perfectly satisfying, will not make us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we think it will. Indeed, studies show that the happiness boost from marriage lasts an average of only two years. Unfortunately, when those two years are up and we’re not as fulfilled as we expected to be, we think there may be something wrong with us or that we’re the only ones who feel this way. But—you guessed it—we’ve just hedonically adapted! So, as with the job, don’t throw out a perfectly happy marriage because the fires of passion are now warm embers.
Myth 4: “I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart.”
When a committed relationship falls apart, our reaction is often supersized. Fear of divorce is especially acute. We feel that we can never be happy again, that our life as we know it is now over. However, people are remarkably resilient, and research shows that the low point in happiness occurs a couple of years before the divorce. As soon as four years after the breakup of a troubled marriage, people are significantly happier than they ever were during the union.
Myth 5: “I could never recover emotionally from a dire medical diagnosis.”
When our worst fears about our health are realized, we can’t imagine getting beyond the crying and despairing stage. We can’t imagine experiencing happiness again. Yet much can be done to increase the chances that our time living with illness will not be all misery and purposelessness—indeed, that it can be a time of growth and meaning—with hundreds of studies to substantiate it.
Science shows us that we have the power to decide what our experience is and isn’t. Consider that during every minute of our day you are choosing to pay attention to some things and opting to ignore, overlook, suppress or withdraw from most other things. What you choose to focus on becomes part of your life, and the rest falls out. You may have a chronic illness, for example, and you can spend most of your days dwelling on how it has ruined your life, or you can spend your days focusing on your gym routine or getting to know your nieces or connecting to your spiritual side. We can change our lives simply by changing our attitudes of mind.
Myth 6: “The best years of my life are over.”
The great majority of us believe that happiness declines with age, falling more and more with every decade. Thus we may be surprised to learn what research conclusively confirms—that older people are actually more joyful and satisfied with their lives than younger people. They experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones, and their emotional experience is more stable and less sensitive to the vicissitudes of daily negativity and stress.
Although exactly when the well-being peak takes place is still unclear—three recent studies demonstrated that the peak of positive emotional experience occurred at ages 64, 65 and 79, respectively—what is very clear is that youth and emerging adulthood are not the sunniest times of life.
Why is this? When we begin to recognize that our years are limited, we fundamentally change our perspective about life. The shorter time horizon motivates us to become more present-oriented and to invest our (relatively limited) time and effort into the things in life that really matter. So, for example, as we age, our most meaningful relationships become much more of a priority than meeting new people or taking risks; we invest more in these relationships and discard those that are not very supportive. In a sense, we become more emotionally wise as we age.
For more detail and citations of supporting theory and research, see the author’s new book, The Myths of Happiness (Penguin Press), from which this article was excerpted.