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The way to happiness: who’s right?

[ 6 ] December 3, 2010 |
the way to be happy: paste on a smile?

image by Mayselgrove, via Flickr

There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there about how to be happy. We’ve probably heard almost all of it at one point or another, plus most of us live as if we believed some assumptions that everybody “knows” aren’t true. Money can’t buy happiness, anyone?

One of the biggest conflicts that I’ve run into lately is about thinking. What should you think in order to be happy?

One camp, the stereotypical self-help crowd, advocates thinking happy thoughts, and expecting your world will change to match. For example, I might tell myself “Every day and every way, I’m getting better and better!” or “I’m so grateful that I’m a wildly successful writer and millions of people pay to read my work!” The idea is that if you think happy thoughts so much you start believing them, they will come true.

According to The Secret, you can get anything you want if you just believe hard enough that you already have it. The book advises figuring out what you want, getting as specific as possible, and visualizing yourself enjoying whatever it is. This is common advice and has proven effective for athletes, public speakers, and many others. However, the book gets a little extreme by going on to advocate acting as if you already have the thing you want, while blocking out any negative or contradictory thoughts or information.

For example, if you want to weigh 134 pounds, you need to visualize yourself at that weight, tell yourself you can eat anything you want and you always stay the perfect weight, and don’t let anything into your head that contradicts your preferred reality, even if you have to tape a piece of paper with “134” written on it over your scale’s display. Similarly, when bills come in, pretend they’re checks and get really grateful that people are sending you so much money!

Obviously, this is pretty extreme, but this category includes even more moderate things like telling yourself you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you, especially if you don’t really belive what you’re saying.

On the other hand, there’s another camp that believes that the truth and a life of integrity are the way to happiness—that you’ll never be happy if there’s a conflict between the reality you subscribe to and the true reality of the world around you. Any denial or pretense causes tension that makes genuine, lasting happiness impossible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go around scowling at people and raining on everyone’s parade. You can still find the good in a situation, you just can’t pretend the situation is something it’s not.

For example, let’s say you’re out for a run and it starts raining. The first approach might tell you to smile and tell yourself that it’s a beautiful, sunny day in your head, and that’s all you need! You’re running in the sun! The second approach would say it’s raining, but it feels kind of good to run in the rain because it keeps you from overheating and makes you even more proud of your dedication to keep at it.

So who’s right?

If the self-helpers are right, the rest of us are making ourselves less happy and maybe even calling bad things into our lives by acknowledging the less-than-pretty sides of reality. But haven’t we all felt how awful it feels to delude yourself or deny reality?

If you haven’t done this, I can tell you, I have. It led to nothing but disaster for me. But then how to explain the small number of wildly successful people who attribute their success to The Secret?

I turned to some psychologists’ research to try to answer this question. It turns out that, in order to flourish, people need a 3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity.

Notice that’s not 3:0—you can’t eliminate all negativity, you just need three times as much positivity to thrive. Unfortunately, it’s a tipping point phenomenon, so you won’t see much effect below 3:1. Then, suddenly, when you cross that magic line, you start flourishing.

So just think lots of happy thoughts?

No, it doesn’t work that way. Your brain knows when you’re telling yourself something untrue, or something that you don’t believe, and disregards it. Those thoughts don’t count toward your positivity quota.

In fact, a study found that insincere happiness and fake smiling cause the same dangerous cardiac reactions in your body as anger!1 Being fake is stressful and bad for your health!

How to be real and happy

There are ten forms of positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. It’s good to seek these out wherever you can.

Positivity is fragile, and you can’t just decide to be happy, any more than you can just decide to feel pain in your left shin now. If you want to feel pain in your shin, you can whack it against a table leg or something, but just sitting there thinking about it won’t make it happen. It requires action on your part.

Happiness is the same way. You can’t just declare “I want to be happy.” or “I am happy now!” and cause yourself to feel happy. You have to take some sort of action.

The quickest way to do this is to look for the good in your situation. You probably know what’s less than ideal about your situation, but what’s good or right about it? In what ways are you lucky to be where you are? How could you see a gift or blessing in the current circumstances? How does your situation benefit you or others?

Even in truly horrible situations, there is good to be found if you look hard enough. Consider this quote from Victor Frankl:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

If Victor Frankl could find the good in a concentration camp, surely we can find it in our lives.

To get to a positivity ratio of 3:1 or higher, look for the good as often as you can, and try to cut down on your negativity, too. There’s no need to lie or feed yourself a line about what’s happening, but complaining and blaming don’t help, so drop them as much as you can.

Also, it may go without saying, but if you hate your situation, the most efficient way to be happier is probably to change it. Some thing we can’t change, like illnesses or natural disaster, but we can change many other things in our lives, like where we live, the people we interact with, our jobs or whole career fields, our obligations. If you hate a situation that can be changed, take a good, hard look at why you’re still in it. You may have a good reason, but you may just be afraid to change.

Each of us has the power to change our lives for the better and build our own happiness. It’s not going to happen without action on our part. I’m talking to myself as much as to anyone who may read this: get real, get positive. Get to work!

Related posts:
The Number One Shortcut to Enjoying Life More
Can $75,000 buy happiness?
How Unhappiness Works–and How to Beat it!

If you want to read more on this subject, the information in this post came from Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.

1E. L. Rosenberg, P. Ekman, et al. “Linkages between facial expressions of anger and transient myocardial ischemia in men with coronary artery disease,” Emotion 1 (2001): 107-115.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (6)

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  1. Another great post Cara! The Secret mentions feeling good quite a lot, and I have to admit that I say I’m feeling good quite a lot of the time too… I use that expression whenever I’m feeling happy! I still have times when I don’t feel as good, but nowhere near as many times that I do feel good! I’ll have to see if I can measure my positivity ratio…

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks! I’ll be interested to hear your results! I think there’s a lot of good stuff in The Secret, but the parts where you block out reality scare me.

  2. Jess says:

    Great post! I think the 3:1 ratio thing is very interesting, and it is also pretty amazing that the effort to pretend to be happy is not good.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks! About pretending, I found that a big relief. I was always afraid I’m ruining everything by not affirming hard enough or something. But if it’s bad for you, that’s definitely a good reason to quit trying so hard!

  3. One of the best and most interesting books I’ve read on happiness lately was The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. He traveled the world looking for the happiest people on the planet and discovered some really interesting and entertaining stuff.

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