Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish To Try to Be Happier.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for last two weeks, I’ve been debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish and Self-Centered To Try to Be Happier.

Myth No. 10 is the most pernicious myth about happiness. It comes in a few varieties. One holds that “In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.” Another one is “Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.”

Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.

I’ve certainly noticed this about myself. When I’m feeling happy, I find it easier to notice other people’s problems, I feel that I have more energy to try to take action, I have the emotional wherewithal to tackle sad or difficult issues, and I’m not as preoccupied with myself. I feel more generous and forgiving.

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, one of my biggest intellectual breakthroughs was the identification of my Second Splendid Truth. There’s a circularity to it that confused me for a long time. At last, one June morning, it came clear:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Everyone accepts the first part of the Second Splendid Truth, but the second part is just as important. By making the effort to make yourself happier, you better equip yourself to make other people happier, as well. It’s not selfish to try to be happier. In fact, the epigraph to the book The Happiness Project is a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

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On a positive psychology listserv, I read comments by Professor Todd Kashdan, and I see he did an interesting study on the relationship of gratitude to happiness — and how men are much less likely to feel and express gratitude than are women.

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Happiness Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

Happiness Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

Wrong. Although it can be tempting to take a “personal day” when you’re feeling blue, or to isolate yourself until you feel better, you’re better off doing just the opposite.

Connecting with other people, even if you don’t feel like it, is more likely to improve your mood – and this is true even for introverts.

In fact, researchers reported that out of fifteen daily activities, such as exercising, commuting, or doing housework, everything is more fun with company. They found only one activity during which people were happier alone rather than with other people — and that was praying. To my mind, that’s no exception; the point of praying is that you’re not talking to yourself!

I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own life. I spend most of my days by myself, reading and writing, and I’ve noticed that I always get a big burst of energy and cheer when I have a chance to be with other people. Even if I leave my desk feeling enraged, annoyed, or insecure, I feel better after talking to someone else – not talking about what’s bothering me, but just talking about anything at all. In fact, I usually feel better if I’m distracted from my concerns, rather than try to discuss them.

So if you just went through a painful break-up so are tempted to not meet your friends after work but instead stay home on the sofa with the remote control, or if you just lost your job so don’t want to deal with going to the the neighborhood BBQ, make the effort to push yourself out the door. Most likely, you’ll feel better if you do.

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Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’ve been debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

We often imagine that we’ll be happy as soon as we get a job/make partner/get tenure/get married/get that promotion/have a baby/move. As a writer, I often find myself imagining some happy future: “Once I sell this proposal…” or “Once this book comes out…”

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy,” the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy. (Other fallacies include the “floating world fallacy,” the belief that immediate pleasure, cut off from future purpose, can bring happiness, and the “nihilism fallacy,” the belief that it’s not possible to become happier.) The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because arriving rarely makes you as happy as you expect.

Why? Because usually by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals a new goal. There’s another hill to climb.

In fact, working toward a goal can be a more powerful source of happiness than hitting it – which can sometimes be a letdown. It’s important, therefore, to look for happiness in the present, in the atmosphere of growth afforded by making gradual progress toward a goal (technical name: pre-goal attainment positive affect).

When I find myself focusing overmuch on the anticipated future happiness of arriving at a certain goal (as I often do), I remind myself to “Enjoy now.” If I can enjoy the present, I don’t need to count on the happiness that is — or isn’t — waiting for me in the future. The fun part doesn’t come later, now is the fun part.

So the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness. To the contrary. The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal. Nietzche explained it: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

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My former boss, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has launched a wonderful site, Our Courts, a fantastic new resource about civics for students and teachers. There’s a great video of Justice O’Connor explaining the site — I was laughing as I watched, because it so captures her personality. My favorite line: “The Founders of our Constitution and our government created three equal branches of government. Like super heroes, each branch of government has special powers, but each one also has certain weaknesses.”

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Happiness Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

Happiness Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

Half wrong. It is true that studies show that if you commit a random act of kindness, you’ll feel happier. What’s considered a “random act of kindness”? Giving a flower to a stranger, paying the toll for the car behind you, or putting coins in someone’s meter are typical examples.

Doing something thoughtful for someone else is a surefire way to make yourself happier. Do good, feel good.

However, probably the reason you feel happier is that you’re imagining that you’re making someone else happy (that’s the Second Splendid Truth, Part A) – and that’s not as true as you might think. A study shows that many people reacted to receiving a random act of kindness with –- suspicion! (See also Larsen and Prizmic’s “Regulation of Emotional Well-Being” in The Science of Subjective Well-Being.)

This certainly rings true for me. If someone randomly does something kind for me, I’m on guard. It’s not that I have a profound distrust for mankind, it’s just that I’m uneasy if I don’t understand why someone behaves in an unusual way. It’s not the kindness of the act that’s the problem; it’s the randomness.

We don’t expect people to act randomly. A person might feel suspicious when you hand him a flower, for example, because he might think you’re trying to invoke the very strong psychological phenomenon of “reciprocation”: when someone gives you something or does something for you, you feel you must reciprocate. That’s why members of the Hare Krishna Society gave flowers to passers-by in airports. That’s why charities send those complimentary address labels when they ask you for money. (For a fascinating discussion of reciprocation, read the brilliant book by Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.)

It’s always nice to be nice, of course. It’s not bad to practice random acts of kindness. But if you want to build your happiness based on the happiness you bring to other people – the noblest ways of boosting happiness – it’s more productive to be targeted. Help a co-worker even when you’re rushing to meet a deadline yourself. Go out of your way to help an overwhelmed parent juggling toddlers and grocery bags. Putting money in someone’s meter is just such an unexpected action that there’s a good chance that it won’t be understood correctly.

Maybe some people are attracted to acting randomly because it allows them to be more secretive about their good deeds; some people believe that the fact that you get “credit” for a worthy act somehow minimizes its worth, and along the same lines, some people argue that you can never act with true altruism, because performing good acts brings the pleasure of happiness. My view: all the better!

The fact is, the sight of someone performing a generous or kind act always makes me feel happy. Especially if it’s me! The spectacle of virtue inspires the feeling of elevation — one of the most delicate pleasures that the world offers. As Simone Weil observed, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” That’s true no matter who is performing that real good.

So perform acts of kindness. Randomly, but even better, not randomly.

How about you? What has been your experience with random acts of kindness — whether on the receiving or the giving end?

* I always like checking out the many fascinating writers on the Psychology Today blogs.

* I’m on Twitter.

Happiness Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. On Friday, I wrote about Myth No 5: A “Treat” Will Cheer You Up.

Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

Well, money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of things that contribute mightily to happiness.

As the current financial downturn is making vividly clear, money contributes to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of it brings much more unhappiness than possessing it brings happiness. (Good health is the same way – it’s easy to take money or health for granted until you don’t have it anymore.) People’s biggest worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores. Spent right, money can go a long way to relieving these problems.

Also, if spent wisely, money can help you boost your happiness. For example, philosophers and scientists agree that having strong ties to other people is the KEY to happiness, and money can pay for a plane ticket to visit your sister, a babysitter for a date night with your sweetheart, or pizza and beer for a Super Bowl Party with friends. Novelty and challenge will make you happier, and money can pay for a trip to France, for a drawing class, for a mountain bike.

Is money essential for developing strong ties to other people or finding ways to challenge yourself? Of course not. But money can make it easier. Some of the best things in life aren’t free.

Whether rich or poor, people make choices about how they spend money, and those choices can boost happiness or undermine happiness. It’s a mistake to assume that money will affect everyone the same way. No statistical average can say how a particular individual would be affected by money—depending on that individual’s circumstances and temperament. Three factors shape the significance of money for you:

* It depends on what kind of person you are. You might want to own a horse, or you might want to own a turtle. You might have six children and ailing, dependent parents, or you might have no children and robust parents. You might love to travel or you might prefer to putter around the house.

* It depends on how you spend your money. Some purchases are more likely to contribute to your happiness than others. You might buy cocaine, or you might buy fresh produce. You might splurge on a big-screen TV, or you might splurge by going to a more convenient gym.

* It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. One person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune.

The current economic climate underscores that third aspect of the money/happiness relationship: our happiness is affected by whether we have more or less than we used to have.

My First Splendid Truth holds that “To think about happiness, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” We’re made happier by the feeling that we are learning, growing, seeing change for the better. This applies to the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional parts of our lives – and also, for most people, the financial part.

Feeling like we have less than we did – unless that’s the result of a conscious decision – can be a happiness challenge. In one striking study, people were asked whether they’d rather have a job that paid $30,000 in year one, $40,000 in year two, and $50,000 in year three, or a job that paid $60,000, then $50,000 then $40,000. In general, people preferred the first option, with its raises—despite the fact that at the end of the three years, they would have earned only $120,000 instead of $150,000.

Their decision might seem irrational, but in fact, the people who chose the first option understood the importance of growth to happiness. People are very sensitive to relative changes in their condition, for better or worse. (Sidenote: some people feel like they have more with less, so they get a feeling of growth by simplifying their lives.)

If you feel like you’re worse off now than you were two years ago, that’s an unhappy feeling. Some quick ways to make yourself feel better: count your blessings; distract yourself with something fun or interesting; find ways to assert control over your situation (even to do something as small as to clean out a closet); spend time with friends; or do something to help someone else – you can sign up to be an organ donor right this minute. You’ll feel great!

What do you think? How do you think of the relationship between money and happiness? Important, unimportant? I think this is one of the most complex and fascinating subtopics within the subject of happiness.

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I love a good manifesto, and here’s a great one on Scobleizer.

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If you haven’t seen my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short, you might enjoy it.