Ah happiness. That super elusive must have accessory. Does poring over social media leave you feeling down? Are you constantly wondering if everyone else is having more fun than you? Is your day peppered with FOMO? You’re not alone. Living in a culture that emphasises the importance of happiness can be draining. Is the pressure to be happy making you miserable?
Research by Lucy McGuirk at the University of South Wales, Australia found that the constant pressure to be happy is fine when we’re upbeat and chipper. We can roll with it when things are going our way. But what happens when we’re not quite so cheerful?
Being Happy is a Cultural Obsession
It’s unrealistic to expect to be happy all of the time, but that’s the pressure we place on ourselves. There has been an explosion of happiness related books, films and research over the past ten years. Happiness is ubiquitous.
The researchers described happiness as a ‘cultural obsession’. They noticed that happiness was promoted above all else and presented as the norm. If you’ve ever had a bad day, you’ll recognise why that kind of obsession is problematic. Life consists of highs and lows, peaks and troughs. It isn’t always instagram perfect. In spite of this reality, we carefully curate our social media, presenting only our ‘best selves’, presenting the best, happiest version of our lives to the rest of the world.
McGuirk and her colleagues recognised this phenomenon and decided to look at what happens to us when we expect to be happy but we’re not.
Testing for Happiness
McGuirk and her colleagues designed an experiment to manipulate the mood of participants. They were asked to complete a task in a room full of posters, books and motivational quotes that suggested happiness was the normal state. Even the experimenters leading the task were annoyingly super happy. The participants were then asked to solve impossible anagrams and told, when they failed, that they should have got more correct.
A second group was given the same impossible task, this time, in a neutral room. They were also led to believe that they had failed.
A third group was given the identical task in a neutral room. When they failed they were informed that the task was difficult and not to consider themselves failures.
Dictating Happiness Makes us Miserable
No surprises then that post task, the first group ruminated more on their failure and reported being the least happy of all three groups when asked to report on their mood. Feeling pressured to be constantly happy makes us miserable.
Well, there is no cure for unhappiness. It’s a normal state that we will all experience in our lives. Being unhappy doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or that we’re incomplete in some way, it simply means that we’re human.
Deflection: If we can find a way to deflect the rumination around how happy we ‘should’ be, turning away from the cultural obsession with happiness, we are better able to manage the low moments of life. Acceptance of this as the real state of being human is crucial.
Mindfulness: One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is equanimity, or accepting things exactly as they are. That doesn’t mean sitting and wallowing, but it does mean accepting that there will be times of unhappiness in life.
Growth Mindset: Developing a growth mindset and learning to recognise our failures as information or data that we can use next time will also help to inoculate us against the happiness police.
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