Ten Common Myths About Happiness.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day (or List Day, or Quiz Day).
This Wednesday: 10 common myths about happiness.

Lately, I’ve found myself frequently discussing several of ten common myths about happiness, so I decided to post the complete list here.

No. 1: Happy people are annoying and stupid. This is an automatic assumption that many people make.

No. 2: Nothing changes a person’s happiness level much.

No. 3: Venting anger relieves it.

No. 4: You’ll be happier if you insist on “the best.”

No. 5: A “treat” will cheer you up.

No. 6: Money can’t buy happiness.

No. 7: Doing “random acts of kindness” brings happiness. The emphasis here is on the word “random.”

No. 8: You’ll be happy as soon as you… Falling into the “arrival fallacy” is something that many people (including me) recognize in themselves.

No. 9: Spending some time alone will make you feel better.

No. 10: The biggest myth: It’s selfish to try to be happier.

Agree? Disagree? Am I missing an important myth?

* Via HeadButler, I read the moving eulogy for writer Robert B. Parker, written by his son.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 39,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Bet

    Sorry Gretchen, but I disagree with number 9. As an introvert, I need regular time alone, and I am truly happier when I get it! I am also more ready to interact with and love my family and friends when I have had sufficient “alone time”. Yes, there are times when I have to be with people after I have reached my “apex of sociability”, as I call it, and then I just have to be a grown-up about it and keep going. But I think I am more fun to be with if I can have even a short re-charging session.

    • I also disagree with number 9. I think everyone needs an individual balance of time alone and time with others – and time alone can be very recharging and blissful, just as much as time connecting. I do agree that it can be overdone and that there are times when it’s more valuable to force yourself to interact a bit – but I disagree that time with others always makes one happier than time alone.

  • I agree with most of them except that a treat won’t make you feel better. I love to treat myself every once in a while — sleeping in on a Saturday, skipping one class I just can’t go to, etc. It doesn’t have to be a tasty treat, but indulging myself every once in a while in other ways boosts my happiness!

  • I find #3 to be an extremely commonly held assumption.

    I find Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on ‘venting’ eloquently shows what I’ve observed (including/especially in my own behavior)


    Excerpted: “People who use venting techniques like hitting a pillow or shouting are actually rehearsing anger. When someone is angry and vents their anger by hitting a pillow, they are learning a dangerous habit. They are training in aggression. Instead, our approach is to generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace anger every time it manifests.”

  • Interesting post Gretchen. I think these are some myths people claim on happiness, but they are really true to the person who believes them. Like Bet said, some people feel better when they are alone; others feel miserable when they are alone and need company to make them feel happy.

  • Lisa

    I feel better when I am alone. I’m an introvert, so I like my quiet time. I like my people time as well, but only in small doses. 🙂 Great post, tho!

    • gretchenrubin

      I agree, absolutely, I need a lot of time by myself, too. Huge amounts of

      My point is only that often, people who are feeling unhappy think they’ll be
      happier if they stay by themselves, when in fact, they’d get a lift from a
      social interaction — one that suits their nature, of course, and within

      But often, when we feel unhappy, we isolate ourselves, and that can tend to
      deepen unhappiness. The idea of being with other people can feel
      overwhelming and draining, so it’s easier to stay home alone. Sometimes,
      being alone can be wonderfully restorative, but at other times, contact with
      others — even if it feels burdensome at first — really does give a lift.

  • Diana

    I very much agree with post #1. I do think that people sometimes consider happiness equal to self-delusion, denial, or a lack of authenticity. There are expansive ways to define happiness that are not antithetical to being intellectual, engaged, etc–but people who have an ax to grind often trot out the image of the happy person as someone in deep denial who bullies others into “being positive.” There is something threatening about the idea of taking happiness seriously. When I mentioned to my friend that I am doing a “happiness project” she said, “You’re happy enough already,” and was clearly annoyed by the idea. I just saw an exhibit about Benjamin Franklin (including his resolution chart) and am proud to point to him as an amazing example of what happy people can accomplish–with wit, humor and their talent for engaging other people.

    • gretchenrubin

      Benjamin Franklin is one of the patron saints of people doing happiness
      projects! I want to see that exhibit! His Autobiography was a major
      inspiration for me and how I set up my happiness project.

      • Diana

        Here’s the info about it:
        It travels to the East Coast but doesn’t hit New York. Your book helped inspire me to take my family. My 8 year old twin boys loved it.

  • I think there is some truth to the observation that “ignorance is bliss” myth #1. Many people who ignore major issues like finances and politics, for example, seem happier on a day-to-day basis than those who are more aware. That doesn’t mean the person is always ignorant or stupid but they usually don’t come across as the most intelligent person in the room.

  • Someone

    Yep, when I saw this list I knew you’d get some disagrees on #9. Many of us actually NEED time alone to recharge. I find alone time very refreshing, and fortunately my husband is the same as I am on this. (Clashing alone-time needs can be difficult at home!)

    Americans have this attitude that if you like to be alone, you’re odd, unsociable, and unhappy. That’s just not true for many people. Our personalities and preferences aren’t the same. (Consider how different your interest in food and change are from many others…I’m the opposite of you on those 2.)

  • Britty

    Thank you for the link to David Parker’s eulogy for his father, the great Robert B. Parker. As Marilyn Stasio observed, though she was referring to his indelible creation, Spenser, “another hero has left town for good.”

  • ceduke

    As someone who has been home with my hubby for several months while he prepared for his new job…I have to say that the occasional day to myself would be very valuable. I have not been alone anywhere for more than two hours in almost four months. It’s coming to an end soon and I can’t WAIT to have some quiet days to read, scrapbook, journal, whatever….by myself.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ok! I’m convinced! I think I must re-think the phrasing of that myth. The
      opposite of a great truth is also true — and I too often fantasize about
      having a whole day to myself and how happy that would make me.

      What I meant to address is the situation when you feel so lousy that you
      want to stay home and watch TV along instead of meet a friend for dinner,
      but if you force yourself to go out, you feel better. People, introverts
      and extroverts alike, get a lift from social contact. But absolutely, I
      agree, sometimes being alone is what’s needed. Desperately!

      So I am going to think again about what I am talking about here….

  • danielle

    this is such a great list! personally, i find all of the items ring true for me, but my favorite one is #2: Nothing changes a person’s happiness much.

    as someone who has dealt with chronic, treatment-resistant depression for most of my life, i can tell you that i’m at a very different level of happiness right now than i have been in YEARS, and reading your book a little over a month ago was what really got the ball rolling for me! nothing else has changed – same medications, eating habits, etc. – but your book really struck a chord with me and got my life moving in the right direction.

  • Gretchen Rubin

    A reader emailed me to ask for more citation on the “people get a lift from other people” assertion in #9. Two good sources:

    Diener and Seligman, Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being, at 20.
    Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi at 42.

    Of course, as with all such studies, a particular person’s experience may be different from what is true for most people. That’s why, for any happiness project, it’s crucial to know yourself. As I often remind myself, I can only build a happy life on the foundation of my own nature.

  • In high school and college, I remember being told that my “happiness is annoying.” Luckily I became and adult and learned to purge negative people from my life. I like being happy, and I’m sure they would enjoy it too!

  • rastus

    How about you can become happier by reading a blog or book?

  • Sally

    Robert Parker’s son, David ended his eulogy with this quote from Moby Dick.

    “And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”

    For the full eulogy go to the Washington Post website.

  • auntiewoolie

    For #1…the fake Pollyanna happy people are annoying. But the warmth generated by a person experiencing their true happy moments–that’s contagious!

  • Just to be the fly in your ointment:

    No. 1: Happy people are annoying and stupid.

    Happy people ARE annoying…to people who aren’t happy. Just like morning people are annoying to nightowls. It says more about the annoyed than the annoyer.

    No. 2: Nothing changes a person’s happiness level much.

    That’s got a level of zen complexity that I can’t begin to untangle. So, in the spirit of Richard Farina, I’ll say, “Nothing changes…that’s all it does.”

    No. 3: Venting anger relieves it.

    True, in the sense that releasing anger relieves it. This does not have to be destructive.

    No. 4: You’ll be happier if you insist on “the best.”

    You’ll be happier if you insist on the best you can have. The notion of absolute best is like Bruce Lee’s analogy of a mountain…there’s always one somewhere that’s taller.

    No. 5: A “treat” will cheer you up.

    Define treat. An hour spent reading in my cozy chair is definitely a “treat” and will always make me less likely to run amok with garden shears.

    No. 6: Money can’t buy happiness.

    I hate when people throw this at me. Money on its own can’t buy happiness, but it’s easier to be happier with money than without it. My day’s a whole lot brighter if I don’t have to worry about the mortgage payment.

    No. 7: Doing “random acts of kindness” brings happiness.

    “Shared joy is increased; shared pain is lessened.” -Spider Robinson

    No. 8: You’ll be happy as soon as you…

    How about “I’ll be happiER as soon as I….”. Material change may not ensure happiness, but it certainly can contribute to it. Hence the truism of work…A bad day spent doing something you love is better than a good day spent doing something you hate.

    No. 9: Spending some time alone will make you feel better.

    Absolutely and definitely. This can be subjective, but nothing clears the mind and makes me more ready for company than having spent a good session inside my own head. Also, the corollary is true: Giving me some time alone will make others feel less unhappy for having to deal with me.

    No. 10: The biggest myth: It’s selfish to try to be happier.

    Again, absolutely and definitely. It is selfish, and should be. Read Ayn Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness” or Nathaniel Branden’s “Psychology of Self Esteem”, or look at Maslow’s pyramid. Even altruistic actions must derive from selfish self-actualization before they can be extended outwards. Hence “Be Gretchen” has to come before “Be Lisa, or Bet, or Kevin….” or the general Romper Stomper happiness of all your readers.

  • Hi Gretchen and thanks for this important list of myths!

    The one that really caught my attention is the big one–the last one! But there are so many of us who believe that happiness IS selfish!

    In my professional work, I work with women to live more on-purpose, to be ‘more of who they are,’ and to follow their joy. So often I find that many women who already have a myriad of roles (mom, wife, daughter, friend, manager, church volunteer, etc.)…feel guilty or “selfish” if they take a few moments for their own happiness. It’s an easy trap to fall into! And actually, there is a part of personal happiness that is selfish (in the most wonderful sense of the word, though)…but I’d call it ‘constructive selfishness.’

    I love how flight attendants routinely remind us that in the event of cabin pressure loss to put on our own oxygen mask first before assisting others. When we each choose our own happiness first…we’ve got happiness to share with others! And we’ve got the energy to help others tap into their own happiness as well.

    So thanks for the reminder that “happiness = selfish” is simply a myth. The world needs each of us to be happy to share our light with the world!

  • Gina

    Another comment from an introvert – tending towards social phobic… I can see both sides of the argument – I NEED alone time to recharge – especially after a day or evening spent with many people. Introverts are usually drained by the interactions. (While my husband the extrovert seems to draw energy from being with many people).
    On the other hand, while I often have to force myself to go to gatherings when I would rather stay home with a good book, I’m usually happy I went and happy to be with friends once there. Over time my social phobia has been improving though I’ll always be introverted.

  • maccarey

    I also disagree with number 9. We’re all different and have different temperaments and communication styles. For an extrovert, alone time may be a catalyst for negative thinking and wallowing.

    But as an introvert, nothing could make me feel more anxious, and well, unhappy, than to be around people 24/7. Like Lisa and Bet, I need daily, quiet, alone time to recharge and reflect.

    Maybe this goes back to the whole happiness isn’t a one size fits all solution, and it’s important to know what works for you and those around you.

    Mac Carey
    Enterwall LLC
    Business and Life Coaching

  • No. 3: “Venting anger relieves it.”

    This is interesting. I spent most of my life completely supressing any feelings of anger, to the point that when my couples therapist during my divorce asked me to write down what makes me angry, it was almost impossible for me to do. Anger was an emotion I didn’t even identify with anymore. Hurt, disappointed, scared, wounded, maybe frustrated, but angry? I didn’t know what those feelings were.

    Connecting with my feelings of anger were actually an important part of my healing process. Not necessarily “venting” them, though — I didn’t need to scream or throw things or take a kick-boxing class — but recognizing them and acknowleding them were important, so I could figure out what needed to change.

    So, yes, I agree that venting anger isn’t necessarily helpful, I also think it’s important not to surpress anger (or any other emotion). Let yourself feel it, figure out what the feeling is trying to tell you, and then see what you can do constructively with it.


  • jacobblankenship

    I absolutely understand and agree with your point on number nine. I often do this to myself where I will hem and ha about having to go and meet someone, and find that even if it is boring, even if it feels like a chore, that I leave the interactions feeling more energized and in a better mood. It’s a paradox. Understandably too, people do in fact need their alone time, which you clearly also recognize and champion, “Spending some time alone will make you feel better” would perhaps be better stated as “Isolating yourself will make you feel better.”

    Just a thought. =)

  • I know what you mean that “treating” yourself can be damaging to happiness if you pick the wrong treat. However, when I’m working really hard on a project that I know is going to take a while, say a few months, I pick a treat to give myself when I complete it. When I finally get to my treat, it definitely boosts my happiness!

    • gretchenrubin

      Treats can work well, but the trick is to pick a treat that really does
      boost happiness, not something that gives a quick boost of pleasure but then
      turns into long-term guilt.

  • #1 really brought a smile to my face! At a luncheon today, I recounted my trouble with a co-worker years ago. We never got along very well, but were professional. One day, his department screwed up and made me look bad to a client, so I let him have it–professionally, but passionately! After we sorted things out, he said, “Well, at least you’re finally being honest.” I was compelled to explain to him that my usually-cheerful demeanor was no act. He apparently had no frame of reference for happy people and just thought I was faking it all the time! Maybe he was the obnoxious one! Thanks for the chuckle!

  • Myth #1 is partially true because the only people who say it are unhappy and miserable and want to believe that about happy people!

    Just wanted to add that I am reading the book and am parting of a group of bloggers who are in a Happiness Project mission.

    This book has only been in my hands for a couple of weeks, I already am so much happier!

    • gretchenrubin

      Fantastic! That’s terrific! I hope to hear more about your group!

  • Nice collection of myths. I consider myself I happy person – hopefully I’m not subjected to their myths and seen as selfish by some people… doesn’t matter though, I’ll still be happy 🙂

  • I should say this is a great piece of work.

  • Rachel

    I think there is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a definition of a temporary state of being. Joy is something drawn from a source and is sustainable, such that when you are happy or sad, you can still have joy in your life. I think joy is really what people are seeking, but they mistake happiness for it.

    I think that when it comes down to it, all those myths could be actually true for people, because it’s a temporary feeling of happiness that results from those actions. For instance, spending time alone for some results in a temporary moment of happiness. For other, treating themselves or spending money brings them a moment of happiness. However, when put in the context of joy, all those myths apply. You may buy that beautiful new purse as a treat, and you will feel excitement and happiness, but will you find joy from that new purse that will sustain you even when you aren’t happy any longer?

    To sum up, I think all those myths actually can bring happiness, but I believe they fall short of bring true joy into a person’s life.

  • rodgerM

    The so-called myth that “Money can’t buy happiness” is truly a myth, and your further discussion of it on that link hits a lot of good points.

    Can one be happy without being “money-wealthy?” Yes, one can. For example, when I was in the Army, I didn’t make a great deal of money, but it was enough to keep me (a single man, at the time) in a state of “non-want,” so to speak. Also, during that time of my life, I thoroughly enjoyed inexpensive camping trips, traveling on my motorcycle. The all time best vacation I have ever had was an 18-day motorcycle camping trip. I just wandered without any specific destination in mind, finding out of the way campgrounds, eating in little “Mom ‘n Pop” restaurants, and enjoying the quiet of nature in camp. The cost for this idyllic journey? $275 TOTAL (in 1986, mind you).

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