You want to be happy. You want to be less stressed. You want the good times to outweight the bad. So why is it so hard to be happy, even when you want it?
For many of us, we’re going about happiness the wrong way. Thanks to our culture, the media, and just plain misunderstanding, we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. (And I want to be clear, here: if you struggle with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, it’s not your fault. You aren’t depressed because you’re looking for happiness incorrectly. For you, it’s hard to be happy because of the chemicals in your brain, not because of your behavior. Keep reading if you want to, or bookmark this for later, but know I’m not talking to you).
But for most of us, a better path to happiness is possible. It just requires a few behavior shifts.
The Bad Stuff Really Does Outweigh the Good
Your brain isn’t your best friend when it comes to happiness. Your brain is wired to be much more sensitive to bad news and threats than it is to good things That makes sense when you think about your caveman ancestors, who needed to be ready to run if they caught even the smallest glimpse of a predator. It’s called negativity bias, and it’s a system that evolved to keep you safe from threats. But in today’s world, you don’t need to run from predators quite so often, yet your brain still pays more attention to negative experiences versus positive ones.
Scientists say it takes 5 positive experiences to outweigh 1 negative experience. But the real key isn’t to just have 5 positive experiences, you have to notice that you’re having them! So as you go about your day, take note of the good things that happen. Did someone let you merge on the highway instead of being a jerk? Did your colleague praise your work? Did your kid say “I love you” without being prompted? If you force yourself to pay attention to the good stuff, too, you’ll find it easier to outbalance the bad stuff 5 to 1.
The Happy Social Media Effect
Social media has its good points. It can help us feel more connected to our networks, which is a strategy that can build happiness. But many people feel more dis-connected when they spend time on social media. The online world allows us to glimpse all the fun, happy times other people are having, and we naturally compare our own lives to what we see on the screen.
I love the Anne Lamott quote “Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” But that’s exactly what we do on social media! We see the bright shiny image that the person on the other side wants us to see, and that’s all. And then we compare that to our own internal worries, doubts, and struggles, and we come up short in comparison. But the person posting on social media has worries, doubts, and struggles, too! They just aren’t posting those moments. If you need to take a social media break, do it. Or at least hide the people who make you feel less-than. Make social media work for you, not the other way around.
You Can’t Chase Happiness
If you want to be happy, it makes sense that pursuing happiness should be a priority. But that’s the exact wrong way to go about it. In fact, research suggests that pursuing happiness can lead to decreased happiness. Especially in the US, our cultural expectations for pursuing happiness can lead us down the wrong paths, like expecting a big work promotion to make us satisfied.
Instead of chasing happiness, it’s more important to chase “meaning.” Meaning is the idea that we know our purpose and are fulfilling our purpose. Meaning isn’t as in-the-moment joyful as happiness might be, but meaning provides the long-term satisfaction and contentment that lasts. To start chasing meaning instead of happiness, think about the moments when you feel like you come alive. Think about serving the greater good. Think about what drives you to keep going. When you tie all those concepts together, you’ll be on the road to finding your meaning. And meaning makes your heart glow for a lifetime, while happiness can be fleeting.
It’s not easy to be happy. But it IS possible, if you pay attention to the things that truly matter.