Actually, Worry....AND Be Happy!
“’Cause when you worry, your face will frown / And that will bring everybody down / Don’t worry, be happy.”
I call bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to be happy as much as possible and I definitely wish happiness for most of you, most of the time. But give me a break, Bobby McFerrin, is it really preferable to always be happy? It sure isn’t, and I’ve got some science to prove it.
The individual’s pursuit of happiness is baked into the foundation of our nation, here in the US. As far as I can tell, in this country’s entire history, we’ve never embraced that personal right more than today. The problem is, when happiness is the primary (or only) goal it leads to two serious problems – harming our physical and psychological well-being and narcissism. For the sake of our well-being we need to ditch the pursuit of happiness and start pursuing wholeness.
Trying to be Happy all the Time Screws Us
I’ve written about Barbara Fredrickson before when I discussed the Positivity Ratio - and I’m a big fan. To recap, Barbara Fredrickson researches the evolutionary value of positive emotions. Her research shows, when we experience substantially more positive than negative emotions we tend to feel a lot better about our life. Shocker, I know. The key takeaway for today is that it isn’t ALL positive emotion, all the time, that leads to life satisfaction. It’s MORE positive than negative. There are still negative experiences.
In some fascinating new research she found a physical manifestation of this truth. It turns out happiness alone isn’t so good for our bodies.
People who seek happiness, in and of itself, as a primary goal have the same physiological response as those suffering from a chronic illness. People who place meaning as a higher virtue in life as compared to “finding happiness” did not have this same physiological response. As Dr. Fredrickson so eloquently put it, “Empty positive emotions are about as good for you as adversity.”
“Empty positive emotions are about as good for you as adversity.”
Why is that? Because the pursuit of happiness has no room for "bad" emotions and feelings. The pursuit of meaning does. In fact, living meaningfully is often quite challenging.
But there's more. A need for intense happiness can actually amplify the experience of unhappiness. It can also make us far less persuasive. And, in a both fascinating and troubling finding, happiness alone can actually increase social bias.
A Life of Pure Bliss is Selfish
Tasha Eurich has done some amazing research on self-awareness. In her latest book, "Insight," she shares some troubling facts.
For example, between the mid 1980’s and the mid 2000’s narcissism in the US increased by 30%. If you’re on Facebook or Instagram you know what I’m talking about – that is if you aren’t a victim of “Selfie Syndrome” yet.
And for those of you who want to blame the easy scapegoat known as Millennials, this change in mindset predates them. A survey of high school students found that in the 1950’s only 12% believed “I am an important person.” By 1989 that number had increased to almost 80%! That’s right – those of us approaching 50 years old find ourselves important at a rate of over 6 times that of our grandparents.
Before my most senior readers smile too much, it doesn’t stop there.
Even our leaders, often the elders among us, aren’t immune to the “me-first” mentality that comes with the pursuit of happiness. From 1975 to 2008 the use of the word “me” in State of the Union addresses increased by more than 85%!
From 1975 to 2008 the use of the word "me" in State of the Union addresses increased by more than 85%!
It seems to me the more we place happiness at the forefront, the more self-centered we’re becoming.
How to Un-F@&k Our Mindset
Earlier I said we need to ditch the pursuit of happiness and start working toward a pursuit of wholeness. Don’t take my word for it, listen to a couple people much smarter than me. In their compelling book, “The Upside of Your Darkside,” rockstar psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener use copious amounts of both science and common sense to make the case for psychological agility. That is, the ability to embrace and utilize both the positive and negative emotions life inevitably brings us.
In many ways it comes down to mindset.
Here are a couple tips to help you build a “whole” mindset.
1) Start telling yourself “emotions are information”: We are so good at labeling our emotions based on how they feel to us. It feels good to experience joy so we call that one “positive.” It feels bad to experience guilt so we call that one “negative.” The problem here is those are loaded terms. How we label things drives our mindset. So let’s stop labeling emotions as good or bad and start calling them what they really are – information.
I shouldn’t avoid guilt. I should recognize when I’m feeling it because it’s telling me something. Probably something like, “Josh, you know that donut isn’t going to fuel you for tonight’s soccer game.”
2) Embrace Meaning: According to Zach Mercurio, meaning can only come from positively contributing to other human beings. It’s the ultimate antidote to the narcissism-driven, selfie world we’re living in. And, as we saw with Barbara Fredrickson’s recent research, it’s heathier for us!
So, spend a little time intentionally working on contribution. Plan at least one thing you’ll do today to contribute to the betterment of someone else. Or, at the end of the day, sit down and think about a couple things you did to contribute to other people’s success or well-being that day – or list a couple things someone else did to contribute to your well-being.
So yeah, go forth and find happiness. And support others in doing the same. Just don’t make it the be all, end all of your life.
Who will you contribute to today?
- Written by Josh Vaisman