The Benefits of Gratitude — Scientific Fact or Marketing Myth?

The Benefits of Gratitude — Scientific Fact or Marketing Myth?

Gratitude is the self-help blogospheres favourite word. It’s a cure all. Depressed? Practice gratitude! Want to have more meaning in your life? Practice gratitude! Want to stop feeling numb and lifeless? Practice gratitude!

I once read an extremely crappy article about the habits of happy people. According to that article, happy people think of three things they are grateful for before they get out of the bed in the morning. Are you kidding me?

My gut tells me that the promotion of gratitude as a proven technique to increase happiness is off. I asked myself, how can such a minor thing make such a massive impact? What does science have to say about this?

Benefits of Gratitude

The science says this: Grateful people tend to be happier, have better relationships, less mental health issues, and are generally just more competent at living life than ungrateful assholes like me 1.

Keep in mind that the above description is based on correlational research. That means that we don’t know whether being grateful makes us happier, or whether being happy makes us more grateful 2.

Can practicing gratitude make you happier?

After a preliminary look at the research, I found the answer was yes, you can improve your level of happiness (and by that I mean positive emotions, and life satisfaction) by practicing gratitude.

I may not believe in it. I may think it’s a waste of time. I may be irritated every time I read an article about the awesomeness of gratitude. I may have privately ridiculed Rick Hanson when he said “I haven’t had a paralysing stroke yet today. Woohoo!” 3

The science said I was wrong. And even though trying to make myself happier goes against my philosophical, scientific, and spiritual beliefs, I was willing to give it a go. I decided to get on the gratitude bandwagon.

Roisin Does Gratitude

Here’s what I did.

First things first: I needed to know how to practice gratitude. In an effort to educate myself on such matters, I picked up The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It’s all about positive psychology practices than can take you from being just normal-level happy to happy-happy. Great.

I took baseline questionnaires measuring happiness, and depression. At this point in my life (I did this a few months ago) I was running around the place telling people I was the happiest I’d ever been. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I was actually slightly less happy than the average person. But, at least I wasn’t depressed.

Me before practicing gratitude

Me before practicing gratitude

For five weeks I practiced gratitude. Sonja said: don’t do it more than once a week because I found that if you do, it isn’t effective. And, she was all about mixing things up. So I did. Sometimes I wrote a list. Sometimes I thought about it in my head. Once or twice I wrote a card expressing my gratitude to someone.

After five weeks, my happiness decreased by 19%. I was irritable, had a lot of negative thoughts, and felt unappreciated and uncared for. And to top it all off, I was now less happy than the average person. I don’t know whether my depression score increased because I forgot to take retake the questionnaire. I guess I was just too preoccupied with everything I was ungrateful for.

Eeeeek. Well, that could have happened for any number of reasons.

So I stopped practicing gratitude for one month. I went about my business. I ate cake, spooned cats, and complained about my father.

My happiness score rose by 25%. I was now happier than I was when I began the experiment.

What happened?

First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t definitive proof that gratitude poisoned my soul, and that not practicing gratitude made me happier.

But, there were a couple of things I noticed that suggest to me gratitude was responsible.

When I practiced gratitude, negative thoughts always intruded. Here’s an example from my first ever gratitude list, including the thoughts that popped up when I wrote it in brackets.

I am grateful for being able to walk for 45 minutes. It’s a real fucking pain having to walk for 45 minutes when you’re tired. 

I’m grateful I have a warm coat. That cost $300 – angry face. 

I’m grateful that I have someone to walk with. I’ve ruined my Mother’s life.

Jeez. You can see where this is going can’t you?

I even got into a verbal altercation with myself over one of the items on my list. I was like I’m so lucky to be able to take time out to recuperate when I’m unwell and then I had the thought I’m so dependent on other people. I fought back and wrote I’m so grateful I have people to depend on. There are people out there who don’t. I am so so lucky. But then I noticed that I didn’t actually feel lucky or grateful, I just felt anxious.

Every week, I thought or wrote down the same things. I couldn’t come up with anything new. And when I practiced gratitude in the real world, no one seemed to notice or care. This made me feel bad and I had all sorts of negative thoughts about my deficiencies as a human being.

I ended up feeling bad about myself, pissed off with my friends, and stressed about my situation.

Yikes.

Me after practicing gratitude

Me after practicing gratitude

Why Didn’t Gratitude Work?

Before I started the experiment. I was the happiest I’d ever been. During the experiment, I started to feel miserable, unappreciated, and stressed.

Why?

1. The Brain Works in Opposites

Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a behavioural theory of human language and cognition, says there are links in the brain between related concepts. These are called relational frames. You can’t have good without bad. You can’t have happy without sad. You can’t have life without death. And you can’t have grateful without ungrateful.

Relational Frame Theory suggests that when I bring to mind what I’m grateful for, all of the relevant relational frames will be activated. And one of those related frames is all those things which I am not grateful for.

2. Gratitude and the Three Selves

According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can exist in three states of self: self as content, self as process, and self as context.

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When we are in self as content, our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories and other internal experiences reflect who we are. Thoughts are not just thoughts, they are reality. Think “I’m useless” and you are useless. Feel sad, and you are a sad person. Here, thoughts and emotions drive behaviour. This is called a state of fusion, and often it’s not a psychologically healthy place to be.

When we are in self as process we’re able to recognise that we are having a thought, emotion, or memory, and we’re able to notice our evaluations of those experiences. This is a healthier place to be, because it unsticks what you think and feel from who you are, and allows space for behaviour to be driven by what’s important to you.

When we are in self as context, our thoughts, emotions etc, are just experiences. They do not define who we are. In self as context, we are simply  experiencing what is. This is distinct from self as process where you are noticing what you’re experiencing – here you are just experiencing. This is a more advanced form of defusion and mindfulness.

People who can move between the three selves in a way that allows them to live a life by doing what’s important to them have what’s called psychological flexibility. Higher psychological flexibility is associated with greater well-being and fewer mental health issues.

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I’d been working hard at living my life in a state of defusion as much as possible. And it was definitely helpful. Knowing that I didn’t have to take on thoughts and emotions or my physical pain as part of my identity was empowering.

Practicing gratitude destroyed my ability to be psychologically flexible. When I practiced gratitude, painful relational frames were activated, and continually pushed me back into self as content where I became fused with my thoughts, emotions, memories. Once I got into self as content I found it hard to shift back out again. Who I was became no different from what I was experiencing.

When I was saying how grateful I was that I could walk for 45 minutes, I was also ungrateful that I could only walk for 45 minutes. Instead of that being an experience I have in a particular context, it became a limitation of who I am. And that limitation defined me.

Gratitude Is Not the Holy Grail of Happiness

My issues with gratitude raised some questions for me. Does everyone benefit from gratitude? Are there certain kinds of people who gratitude is harmful for? Surely I was not the only person in the world who struggled with it – I’m my own kind of special, but I’m not that special.

I did some digging, and I discovered that despite the rosy picture the media has painted of gratitude, the research isn’t as well developed as we’ve been led to believe.

1. Inadequate Comparison Groups

The media is quick to say that gratitude shows all improvements in happiness, physical health, and relationships. Yet the majority the research has used inappropriate control groups. For example, Emmons & McCulloch (2003) randomised participants into groups. Some wrote a list of three things they were grateful for, and some wrote a list of three hassles they’d had that day. Gratitude improved well-being.

From a study like this, we can’t be sure what is causing increased well-being in the gratitude group. Gratitude could be making people feel happier. Or gratitude could look like it’s making people happier because the people in the comparison group feel worse. Or it could be some combination of the two 4. What we do know is that writing about hassles has decreased well-being in at least one study.

Bottom line – to know whether gratitude is working, we need a control group that doesn’t reduce participants well-being.

2. Lack of research evidence

Gratitude research is still in it’s infancy.

We know that it probably works, but we don’t know why, or how, or when it’s most and least effective. That’s why no one is talking about when not to use gratitude. We simply don’t know much about it yet.

It turns out that there is some evidence to suggest gratitude practice is ineffective, or can be harmful for some people. For example, people with a depressive personality style characterised by fear of rejection, abandonment, and interpersonal concerns feel worse when they practice gratitude.

In another study, mildly depressed university students report reduced well-being after immediately after practicing gratitude. And unless they believed gratitude would make them feel better, they continued to get worse. 5

It’s Not All Bad

In saying all this, it’s important I point out that the most recent study I could find on gratitude had thought about all these issues. The authors acknowledged the limitations of previous research and they found out that yes, gratitude does improve well-being when using a decent control group. And yes, there is something special about gratitude over and above just writing about about positive events. So it does work, and apparently the benefits keep on improving up to five weeks later.

Should You Practice Gratitude?

I don’t believe in trying to make yourself feel happier. I believe in experiencing everything that you are experiencing, and doing your best to live a meaningful life.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t practice gratitude. If it works for you, and your happy with it. Then keep on doing it.

But when my Dad said to me, “you laugh a lot more when you’re not practicing gratitude” I took that as a sign it wasn’t right for me.

Have you tried practicing gratitude?

Did it work for you? 

Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.

Footnotes

  1. For a full list of references used in the making of this article, go here.
  2. A correlation between gratitude and happiness tells us these two variables are related but we don’t know which one is causing the other.
  3. Rick Hanson is quoted as saying this in The New Science of Happiness – an article in North & South Magazine February 2015.
  4. Watkins et al., (2015) talk about this issue in their study. They go so far as to say there is possibly only one study that actually uses a decent control group (Seligman et al., 2005). One decent study does not mean we should roll out gratitude interventions on an international scale.
  5. If participants thought gratitude would make them feel better, they eventually improved. P-p-placebo anyone?
The Secret to Success: Follow your yellow brick road part IV

The Secret to Success: Follow your yellow brick road part IV

This article is part the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series a five-part series about living a meaningful life.

There are certain things society expects us to do.

Get a respectable job.

Fall in love.

Get married (and never, ever get divorced).

Make money.

Buy a house.

Have kids.

Work hard. 

We might not be told we have to do these things, but it’s implied – by magazines filled with rich, thin, successful people with really good hair. By the disdain expressed for people on welfare. The awkwardness when someone is fat, or depressed, or poor. Even the standard design of the modern house is set up for married people with kids.1

We’ll I’m sorry society. I don’t fit your criteria. When everyone else is at work on Tuesday, I’ll be growing out my beard and taking a nap on my parents couch.


Couch Potato Snoring

I take issue with the conventional definition of success, and not just because I don’t meet the criteria. My problem lies in the fact all conventional indicators of success are goals. I love goals like I love lemon meringue pie, but if you measure how well you are doing in life by the things you have as opposed to who you are, then you’ve got yourself some weird priorities.

Achieving a goal requires two things: action, and luck. You can set out the best of intentions, plan it all out and work your butt off. But achieving some goals, particularly those related to money, love, and career, always come down to a certain level of chance.

My goals for my life, as written down by me five years ago, included being a qualified clinical psychologist by age 28. Circumstance came along and said, fuck your plans Roisin, this is how it’s going to be, and there is nothing you can do about it.

But who cares?

I don’t want to live by a definition of success that requires a giant portion of luck. I want to live by a definition of success that is dependent solely on things within my control.

And the one thing we can control is our behaviour.

You can’t control whether you get that job, or whether you fall in love, get sick, lose a limb, lose all your savings, or have a mental breakdown. But you can choose how to respond to whatever happens to you. And the ability to be yourself and do what is important to you, especially when faced with adversity, is what I call success.

Who you are is of fundamental importance. Are you being your authentic self? Are you spending your time doing what’s important to you?

The Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series is all about finding out who you are, what you want out of your life and how you want to conduct yourself. Today is about asking yourself, well what actually is most important to me? And am I living my life in a way consistent with that?

The best news is you don’t need to have completed the previous activities to do this one, and it only takes about 10 minutes.2

1. HOW IMPORTANT IS THAT LIFE DOMAIN? (5 minutes)

Below are some broad life domains that people usually find important.

For each of the life domains below, write down how important each area is to you using a scale of 0 (not at all important) to 10 (extremely important).

  • Work

  • Community (this could be your wider community, or a group you below to)

  • Family

  • Intimate relationships

  • Parenting

  • Spirituality/religion/Personal growth

  • Education

  • Fun & Leisure

  • Health

  • Friendships

If there’s another area of your life not covered by this list, feel free to add it.

Don’t rank or order them. You might have more than one thing that you rate as a 10. You might have some 0s. And remember, this is about how important each area of your life actually is to you, not how important you think it should be.

2. HAVE YOU DONE WHAT MATTERS LATELY? (5 minutes)

How well have you done what matters to you in the past two weeks?

Taking it one life domain at a time, rate how consistently you have lived in line with your values in that area. Are you living your life in a way that reflects how important that area of your life is to you?

Rate it on a scale of 0 (not at all consistent) to 10 (extremely consistent).

Remember this isn’t about how successful you actually have been, not how successful you want to be.

And don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes when I do this, I’m like “oh, I didn’t do everything perfectly, so I’m a total failure” and I write down a 3 for consistency. When in reality, I did lots of little things that are important. Count the small things, especially the small things you do regularly.

Is there a discrepancy between your ratings of importance and consistency?

If so, congratulations! You are a normal human being.

If you don’t have a discrepancy, you are either an extremely effective human, or you’re kidding yourself (and it’s probably the latter).

We get discrepancies because sometimes we lose sight of how important something is to us, or other people’s ideas of what should be important influence our behavior, or we’re too scared to do what we really want, or we focus all our efforts on one area but neglect others.

The reality is, you’re never going to get a perfect rating in every area of your life, all the time. Perfection is not even the point. The point is to be yourself and focus your efforts on doing what is important to you, as consistently as you can. There’s no time to frantically run around trying to be perfect. Life is too complex, too demanding, and filled with way too many surprises.

 If you’ve got a discrepancy in some areas, I hope you feel inspired to make some changes. But you might feel like shit about it, and that’s okay. Just work on it. That’s all you can do.

Which areas are you most successful in?

Which area needs the most attention?

Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.

Footnotes

  1. I read this interesting article in the New York Times about single people who are joining forces by living in the same area, and eating meals and stuff together. The author made the point that houses have been designed for families since the 19th century. But alternative designs might be better for groups of people who are single but who also want companionship.
  2. The following activities are based on values exercises as used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic developed by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson.
The Slightly Awkward Third Part of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series

The Slightly Awkward Third Part of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series

This article is part the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series a five-part series about living a meaningful life.

Well, here we are in Part III of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series.

I don’t have that much to say today, so let’s just get on with it huh?

WHERE DOES THAT VALUE BELONG? (10 minutes)

Today we’re talking about ‘life domains’. It’s a weird term, one that I’m not that fond of, but I couldn’t come up with anything hilarious, or Wizard of Oz related that actually made any sense.

Life domains are different aspects of our lives. Here’s a list of life domains people tend to find important:

  • Work

  • Community (this could be your wider community, or a group you below to)

  • Family

  • Intimate relationships

  • Parenting

  • Spirituality/religion/Personal growth

  • Education

  • Fun & Leisure

  • Health

  • Friendships

If there’s another area of your life not covered by this list, feel free to add it.

Using the list of values you came up with in Part II, go through each life domain above, and list 2-3 values most relevant to you in each area. Feel free to add any other values that come up for you.

Some of the values you came up with in Part II will apply to all areas of your life, and some will only be important to you in certain areas. Exploring your sexuality might be important to you in intimate relationships. But this probably not going to be the top of you list at work. Unless you’re Miley Cyrus.

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And we’re done.

Now you know which areas of your life are most important, and which specific actions you can take to do what matters in each area.

This is important because so often we live our lives doing things that are not important to us. Like this morning, when I sat around twiddling my thumbs and complaining about how tired I was…instead of practicing yoga.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to measure your success in life, and not in the how-much-money-do-I-earn and how-big-is-are-my-biceps kind of way.

Which of your values seems to show up as important in different areas of your life?

Image Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg CC License 2.0

How to Find Your Purpose in Life in Less than 20 Minutes: Following your yellow brick road part I

How to Find Your Purpose in Life in Less than 20 Minutes: Following your yellow brick road part I

In my last article, I banged on about how pursuing happiness is a terrible idea.

I implied that pursuing happiness was making you a moron. And then I failed to let you know what you could do instead.

So what do you do?

Nothing. You’ve just gotta suck it up and feel bad.

Just kidding.

Well… I’m not entirely kidding. Life does suck sometimes, and there’s not much you can do about that.

But there is something you can do that can help guide you through the rough times.

I call it following your yellow brick road (Yes! Finally! We’ve reached that moment where you find out the meaning behind the name of the blog).

Originally, this was a massive article. But then I thought ‘this is ridiculous, even I wouldn’t do this’. So, I’ll be releasing this as a series. I’ll publish five articles over the course of two glorious weeks. Starting right now.

WHAT IS THE SERIES ABOUT?

This series is about connecting with who you are, and what’s important to you so you can use this information to live a more meaningful life. Sounds airy-fairy, but it’s not, I promise1.

Do you want to be yourself and do what matters? Sign up to my email newsletter to get all articles in this series delivered to your inbox as soon as they are published (and then my regular articles weekly after that).

Send me those articles!  

You can also join me on Facebook and Twitter.

THE DEEPER MEANING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ

This is what happens: Dorothy runs away from home because the shit has hit the fan and her dog is going to be murdered.

When she realises her family is the most important thing to her, she heads back home, only to be caught in some sort of windy event that I don’t know the name of (The book says it’s a cyclone but I’m not convinced).

Somehow, her house gets lifted off the ground, flies through the air and ends up in The Land of Oz.

Midgets live there, they sing songs, and are scared of green witches. Dorothy isn’t exactly happy about it and wants to find her way back to what matters most to her – Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and the three random men that work on the farm.

So Glinda, the good witch, gives her some sparkly red shoes and tells her to find her way to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz for help.

Like me when I’m trying to figure out how to get dressed in the morning, Dorothy has no idea how to begin and asks Glinda for advice.

Glinda replies with the best advice you will ever get on doing anything important—

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Dorothy did everything she could to find her way back to what was most important to her, in spite of all the obstacles, simply by following the yellow brick road one step at a time.

Your yellow brick road represents your values. When you follow your yellow brick road, you are living a life guided by what is most important and meaningful for you. And when you do that, you can’t go wrong.

LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING

You’ll need to record your answers. Get a pen and paper, open a word document, or record yourself talking – whatever works for you.

WARNING: In the following exercise you’re going to do imagine you’re dead. So if that’s a problem for you, you might want to skip it. If not, hunker down, read the instructions below, and let’s get started

WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? (15 minutes)

Imagine you’re dead. Imagine you were really, really old when you died. You’ve lived an amazing life. Done all the things you’d ever dreamed of. You had that huge family you always wanted, an amazing career, fabulous friends. Whatever it is that you wanted out of life, imagine that it happened.

And here you are, hanging out at your funeral, watching what happens. No one knows you’re there, but you are and you’re pretty keen to hear what everyone had to say about you.

Now get some people up to talk. This is imaginary. So don’t worry about what people would say about you. Have them say what you want them to say.

What kinds of qualities did you have?

How did you make other people feel?

What kinds of things did you do with your time?

What was important to you in your life?

(You don’t have to answer these exact questions, just use them as a guide)

Run through these questions with a few different people who are important to you – maybe your partner, a friend, a boss, a colleague, a child. If someone important to you has died, has not been born yet, or isn’t in your life (e.g., a future husband), you can still write down what you want those people to say about you when you die.

Write for as long as you need. Don’t stop and critique yourself, just let it flow.

WHEN YOU’RE DONE

Your purpose in life is to be yourself, and do what matters most to you. Whatever you’ve written reflects who you want to be and what matters most to you.

When I first did this exercise, I was doing things that weren’t important to me.  At that time, I wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to be, at least, not in practice. I spent a lot of time partying, and almost no time studying. Deep down, my health was really important to me, and having a lot of fun every single day was definitely not as important to me as getting good grades at university. I wanted people to remember me for my good work ethic, and my ability to persevere in difficult situations. I didn’t want people to remember me as that drunk girl who got naked and threw up in a shower.

Throughout the series, you’ll do brief activities exercises that will get specific about what brings meaning and purpose to your life, and how to to put what you’ve learnt into practice.

Keep whatever you’ve written. You’ll need it for Part II.

What did people say about you?

If you’re willing, leave a comment. I’d love to know.

If you liked this post, please spread the love and share it on Facebook or  Twitter.

Footnotes

  1. This exercise and others to come in this series are taken from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. A therapeutic approach developed by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, Kelly Wilson, and Rob Zettle who are seriously amazing psychologists. I highly recommend setting up a shrine to them in your bedroom. Or you could just buy this book
Why Pursuing Happiness Could be Making you Miserable

Why Pursuing Happiness Could be Making you Miserable

Happiness is a choice, you just have to choose it, right?

Urm, no.

One of the biggest misconceptions promoted by the self-help movement is that we can control our emotions. If that was possible, every depressed, anxious, or otherwise miserable person would’ve done it by now.

There are six universal human emotions that everyone has – including you, me, and cannibals in Papua New Guinea1.

Only two of these are labelled positive: happiness and surprise.

Anger, sadness, fear, and disgust have been labelled as ‘problem emotions’ to be discovered and destroyed2.

Why do we have emotions?

Emotions are automatic physiological responses that happen when something triggers them.

Emotion theorists argue that emotions evolved to alert us to important events in the world and help us to respond without having to think about how to respond1,3. Emotions protect us from harm,  help us get food, avoid predators, and survive long enough to sow our wild seeds.

Since emotions are triggered by what happens, we can’t control whether or not they come up. But we can control how we respond to them3.

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So why do we try so hard to avoid ‘bad’ emotions?

Emotions evolved over millions of years to aid survival. And it worked. That’s why we’re still here. Bad feelings signal that things aren’t going well, and their presence prompts us to act.

Emotions are still helpful. It’s just that sometimes they aren’t.

Being angry when someone is stealing the gazelle you hunted for three days = helpful. Screaming, red-faced and crazed because someone was too slow taking off at the traffic lights = not helpful.

We’ve been culturally indoctrinated to believe we should feel happy or there’s something wrong with us. It’s not acceptable for an adult to throw a tantrum in the supermarket. Some people don’t even think it’s appropriate for a toddler to do that. We’re not allowed to express our frustration, sadness or fear in obvious ways. Because it’s ‘wrong’, and a sign of weakness.

So when we feel sad, we pursue feelings of happiness. But pursuing happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness.

I’ve put together three reasons why pursuing happiness could make you miserable.

1. To feel good all the time you have to suppress the bad

Life is filled with mundane, painful, and challenging events. When they occur, your body will automatically produce emotions. To succeed in feeling happy all the time you either have to stop emotions from being triggered (dead people do this really well), or you have to suppress them as soon as they come up.

Trying to suppress your emotions and thoughts is not recommended. For one, it doesn’t get rid of unwanted emotions 4, and suppression is particularly ineffective when emotions are strong 5. Trying to suppress your thoughts can actually make unwanted thoughts pop up more often6. And, trying to suppress both emotions and thoughts can have negative consequences for your health7, especially if it’s a strategy you use regularly8.

2. Whether an emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on context

Emotions influence what we think, and how we think.

When we’re sad, we’re more pessimistic, more cautious and more responsive to what is happening around us. We have better memories, are able to produce more persuasive arguments, and are more accurate at detecting if someone is lying3.

When we’re happy, we tend to be cognitively lazy. We use more superficial thinking strategies, are more likely to react based on stereotypes, and succumb to cognitive biases. We might be happier, but we’re also more gullible and selfish1.

This doesn’t mean being happy is a bad thing. It just means that emotions can be helpful or unhelpful – depending on the context.

3. Monitoring how you feel interferes with being happy

People who actively pursue happiness tend to monitor how they feel. They ask themselves: Am I happy now? What about now? Monitoring how you feel like this interferes with the experience of being happy.

Plus, when people seek happiness they often set high expectations about how happy they should feel, and when they fall short of their expectations, they’re more likely to feel disappointed…and unhappy9.

The Roundabout of Misery

Here’s how I see it.

The pursuit of happiness is a sure fire ticket to getting on the roundabout of misery. The more you chase happiness, the more rigid and single-minded your actions become. You ask yourself “am I happy now?” and if not you keep on striving to get to a place where you are happy. So you run around this roundabout chasing after this goal of happiness. Sometimes you catch it. But as soon as you stop to think whether you’re happy or not, it slips away.

So you pick up the chase again and you’re even more convinced that if you only just run harder and faster that you will get it for good this time. But every time you catch it, sooner or later it slips through your fingers.

And while you’re chasing after happiness you’re running around in a circle like a weirdo. Seriously. Living is not chasing your tail in a circle. Unless you’re a dog, and then I’d imagine that’s an excellent way to spend an afternoon.

But you are not a dog.

To live, you’ve got to pick an exit on that roundabout and leave the pursuit of happiness behind.

You might find happiness when you take the exit. And you might not. There are no guarantees in life.

What is guaranteed though is that you will feel good sometimes and you will feel bad sometimes, so you might as well live your life the way you want to, regardless.

Image credit: Michael Duxbury, available on Flickr. CC License 2.0

Image credit: Michael Duxbury, available on Flickr. CC License 2.0

If pursuing happiness is a bad idea, what should you pursue?
Find out next time.

Footnotes

  1. Ekman, P. (2004). Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings. London: Phoenix.
  2. Forgas, J. P. (2011). The upside of feeling down: The benefits of negative mood for social cognition and social behaviour. Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology, Sydney, Australia.
  3. Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281–291. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0048577201393198
  4. Ehring, T., Tuschen-Caffier, B., Schnülle, J., Fischer, S., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation and vulnerability to depression: Spontaneous versus instructed use of emotion suppression and reappraisal. Emotion, 10(4), 563–572. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0019010
  5. Liverant, G. I., Brown, T. A., Barlow, D. H., & Roemer, L. (2008). Emotion regulation in unipolar depression: The effects of acceptance and suppression of subjective emotional experience on the intensity and duration of sadness and negative affect. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1201–1209.
  6. Becker, E. S., Rinck, M., Roth, W. T., & Margraf, J. (1998). Don’t worry and beware of white bears: Thought suppression in anxiety patients. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 12(1), 39–55.
  7. Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5), 1264–1272.
  8. Denollet, J., Gidron, Y., Vrints, C. J., & Conraads, V. M. (1555). Anger, suppressed anger, and risk of adverse events in patients with coronary artery disease. American Journal of Cardiology, 105(11), 2010.
  9. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815.

Image Credit: Happy Pug by Anthony. Available on Flickr. CC License 2.0.

Why you Need to Read This Blog

Why you Need to Read This Blog

I don’t know about you but I’m sick of being told that I need to be happy.

My Facebook feed is filled with articles about the seven things I need to do right now to be happy. Or articles saying this is what happy people do and I should do it too. And sure, it all makes perfect sense, but then I just sit around wondering why all these articles sound exactly the same, and if it’s all that simple, why can’t we all do what we apparently should be doing?

The pursuit of happiness is an internet craze. It’s not enough to have food in our bellies, a roof over our heads and a high speed internet connection. We want more. We want to be happy, motivated and loved. We don’t want to be miserable, lazy and hated. We constantly chase after the good, while simultaneously trying to avoid the bad, and our lives pass us by in a massive conveyor belt of experiences that are never quite good enough (and if they are, they never quite last long enough).

Honestly, I have no idea what bloggers mean when they talk about happiness. No one defines it. No one says ‘when I say ‘happiness’ I mean ‘this, this and this’, and so it’s up for interpretation. And the interpretation seems to be: Happiness means feeling good all or most of the time, and feeling bad rarely, if at all.

It’s time to call bullshit. This constant need to feel good all the time is getting old, and it’s exhausting. The worst part is it doesn’t even work. The more we chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes. Eric Hoffer once said, “the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness”, and science agrees 1.

Think about it: despite advances in the treatment of depression more, the rate of depression continues to rise 2. Why? One suggestion is that the way humans are biologically and culturally set up to cope with crappy life events is inadequate3. Society doesn’t teach us how to cope effectively, so we fall back on human nature, and human nature screams “avoid!” and we all nod our heads and say ‘yes, yes, suppress the anxiety, what a great idea! Hand me another Xanax’.

Everything good in life is going to be accompanied by some kind of physical or emotional discomfort. This is not news. To get a nice derrière you need to work out, and working out is uncomfortable, especially if you’re unfit. To fall in love you need to open yourself up to some disappointing experiences – awkward first dates, guys who don’t call you back, and a girlfriend who you thought was different but ends up cheating on you anyway. And to feel happy, you’ve got to be open to feeling bad.

The problem is human beings hate discomfort, and so we avoid it, and we end up sacrificing the very things that make our lives worthwhile.

What don’t you want in your life? What have you tried to get rid of it? Did it work? If it did – that’s great! If it didn’t – maybe it’s time for a shift in perspective. Maybe it’s time to start living life how you want to live it right now, regardless of how you feel. Maybe you don’t have to get rid of anything. Maybe you really can feel the fear and do it anyway.

Simple right? Problem solved. Uh, not quite…

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do. We know. Oh we definitely know. We are inundated with what’s, and blog posts and self-help books telling us exactly what to do. The problem is that we don’t know how. We don’t know how to deal with the thoughts, and emotions, and problems that stop us from doing what it is we need to do to live a fulfilling life. We don’t know how to feel the fear and do whatever it is we want to do.

The Yellow Brick Blog is about how to take action to change your life for the better. Plus there will be science. Because science tell us what works, why it works, and how to implement it. The Yellow Brick Blog is not about sitting behind your computer screen emotionally masturbating to motivational posts and lists of things you need to do or should do. This blog is about doing.

I’m not an expert. I don’t have a sob story that somehow makes me qualified to tell you how to live your life. I’m just a girl who happens to read scientific articles for fun on Saturday nights.

How you live your life is up to you. I’m just going to make some science-based suggestions. So welcome. Benefit from my geekiness. Someone has to.

Image credit: Sarah Joy CC license 2.0

Footnotes

  1. Eric Hoffer as cited in Ford, B. Q., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In Gruber, J. & Moskowitz, J. T. (Eds.), Positive Emotion: Integrating the Light Sides and Dark Sides. Oxford Scholarship Online.
  2. Prescriptions for antidepressants have increased over time (see this report), and rates in depression appear to have been rising since the early 90s (see Compton et al., 2006 and Hidaka, 2012). This isn’t surprising, if more people get depressed than more drugs will be prescribed to treat them. But it suggests that there’s something driving rises in depression that isn’t being addressed.
  3. Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1–25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006