The 9 Happiness Myths That Are Probably Ruining Your Life
I want you to think of me as a nice person, so I probably shouldn’t say this.
But if I got a penny for each time I hear a potential client wishing for more happiness in their life, I'd probably buy myself a Big Mac.
I say 'potential' clients because those who work with me soon find out that the term happiness is pretty much banned during our sessions. That’s because, along with a few other vague concepts like purpose or passion, happiness has become a catch-all for everything we think we want in life but have become too hazy or lazy to define.
Even the Dalai Lama didn’t help things when stating that "the very purpose of life is to be happy" – tongue firmly not in cheek this time. Never count on your spiritual leaders to come up with practical advice.
Not that I blame anyone for seeking greater happiness, of course. It’s just that social media and consumer brands are pushing a rather toxic version of happiness that focuses on feeling well rather than living well. While I’m battling a combined jetlag, cold, and disappointingly chilly spring on this side of the planet, that happiness feels just that tad further away than usual.
So, here are a few reframes I’ve found useful in shifting some of the most unhelpful beliefs about happiness, passion and purpose.
Myth 1: Happiness is the natural state of humans. According to this myth, happiness is always there at our disposal even though it's mostly clouded because of our emotions. The idea is that once we let go of any negativity, we can then simply slip behind those clouds and back into our natural state of bliss. While perhaps the kind of words you want to hear at the end of a Yin Yoga class, that’s hardly the lived experience of pretty anyone who’s ever been born. It also creates a sense of guilt that if we're feeling unhappy for whatever reason, it means we're just not trying hard enough.
Myth 2: Happiness means feeling good. Happiness is not a state of perpetual bliss or feeling on top of the world. Like it or not, feelings ebb and flow constantly, and for a large part, we don’t have control over that. This myth encourages people to chase pleasure and avoid pain which then quickly degenerates into mindless hedonism and escapism. A much better definition of happiness is to live a rich, full and meaningful life in which we allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions – positive and negative.
Myth 3: If you’re not happy, there’s something wrong with you. Notice how emotions like sadness, fear or melancholy are increasingly being pathologised? This toxic positivity myth encourages people to victimise and diagnose themselves with poor mental health, when in reality, feeling bad some of the time is an unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Happiness is not the norm, so no need to saddle yourself with a guilt complex for feeling down in the doldrums for a period of time.
Our emotions constantly shift, and as long as you hold on to the idea that happiness is all about feeling good, you’ll never experience it for very long.
And just like they say love is a verb, so is happiness. It involves doing things that feel purposeful, behaving in a way guided by your values, with an intention to make life meaningful. It also means accepting that you’ll experience a full range of emotions along the way.
In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“Happiness is like a butterfly. If you pursue it, it will always be just beyond your grasp. But if you sit down quietly, it might just come and sit and alight upon you.”
Myth 1: We were born with a single purpose. It’s our lifelong job to figure out what that is. Regardless of your belief system, it is unhelpful and perhaps a little narcissistic to assume you were planted here on Earth to fulfil some Divine mission. When talking about purpose, what most people are really looking for is a greater sense of positive impact – on their family, community, or the world at large. That is why I love Mark Manson’s definition: purpose is anything I can do with my time that feels important.
Myth 2: Purpose is static and a constant thing in life. Nope. Your sense of purpose changes over time. It’s totally fine that what matters and is important to you is different now than from when you were in your twenties or thirties.
Myth 3: finding your purpose solves everything. Having a sense of purpose doesn’t mean you’ll live without doubt and uncertainty. There will still be days when you’ll feel unmotivated and fantasise about finding that sugar momma or daddy. Living with purpose isn’t enough to negate the existential boredom and uncertainties we occasionally grapple, but it does allow you to snap out of a lot more quickly.
So what is purpose then?
It’s the feeling that you’re spending your time well and that the challenges you’re presented with are meaningful. You can find purpose in a close relationship, passion for a cause, achieving goals or really enjoying what you’re doing.
So instead of “How do I find my purpose?”, ask yourself, “How do I create more of it?’.
Or instead of “Why am I here?”, ask yourself: “Now that I’m here, how can I make the best use of my time?”
Forget about 'passion'
Myth 1: Passion is an essential ingredient for feeling motivated. No, it’s not. The true ingredients for motivation at work are.
Autonomy: having a degree of control over your responsibilities makes you want to do them well.Capability: feeling competent often results in a feeling of satisfaction.Connection: getting on with your colleagues makes you happier.
Myth 2: Everyone else has a passion. This myth is actually partially true. Research shows that while the vast majority of people do have a passion for something, only a tiny minority (4%) have a passion that can be linked to work. So best of luck becoming a professional soap carver, crossfitter, or fire spinner.
Myth 3: People who love their jobs got them by following their passion. It’s mostly the other way around. People are more likely to become passionate about their work as the years go once they become really good at what they do.
In fact, the best way to do what you love is not by following your passion but by becoming very, very good at something. Cal Newport wrote a brilliant book about this. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he outlines how being really good at what you do then allows you to offer those skills in return for work that allows you to be autonomous, creative, and impactful.
So, if you want to start liking your career a little more, instead of following your passion, start by improving your career capital and your skills.
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