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The happiness myth; Is our endless quest for contentment actually making us feel worse?


Is happiness really the ideal state we imagine it to be, or is our endless quest for contentment actually making us feel worse? Stylist investigates

Are you happy? Do you find each and every moment of your day is suffused with a glow of total contentment? Do you bound out of bed each day with a bright “Hi sunshine” before sticking Pharrell Williams on full blast? That’s exactly how you should be feeling if you subscribe to the current trend for perma-happiness and contentment as the ultimate life goal.

Happiness is everywhere in 2015. Six of Amazon’s top 20 self-help titles are dedicated to finding contentment, internet searches for the word ‘happiness’ have tripled since 1998, while companies ranging from Google to US online clothing shop Zappos have appointed chief happiness officers. In a recent social media survey, happiness was cited as the main driver behind videos and images going viral – good news spreads fast – and the unlikely breakout hit for Netflix this year is the cartoonishly upbeat Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Happiness has become our supreme value, the one we prize above all else – even money. The European Commission is even considering the feasibility of using happiness statistics – or a ‘wellbeing index’ – to replace GDP figures as a means of measuring a country’s success.

But is our pursuit of happiness just a big con? By trying to be happy all the time are we actually making ourselves the opposite? What’s wrong with just feeling OK? One in four people in Britain suffers from depression and anxiety and as we spend increasing amounts of time, energy and money trying to boost our happiness levels, psychologists are questioning if, paradoxically, out obsession might be making us feel worse. And it’s women who are bearing the brunt of this pursuit: a survey by Citi and LinkedIn showed that women measure happiness by achieving a balance across their lives while men focus on more tangible money and career achievements. Trying to achieve this elusive work/life balance is, as many of us can attest, no easy task.

“We are burning ourselves out pursuing happiness,” says Dr Niall Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Roehampton. “As a society, we view happiness as the ideal state, which puts a lot of pressure on us to feel it. If we don’t succeed, we feel like failures, which makes us more unhappy.” It’s not hard to see the irony – and it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs for our mental health and general wellbeing.

Deflated balloon

Temporary high

The concept of happiness has never been easy to pin down. In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle wrote it was the by-product of a life of virtue. But since the 18th century, when the American and French revolutions based their popular support on the concept that happiness is necessary for the health of society, the emphasis has been on feeling good, rather than doing good.

As Anthony Seldon argues in his new book Beyond Happiness, today, many of us have learned to define happiness as pleasure: the rush of endorphins we experience when we buy a new dress or drink a delicious glass of wine, but this feeling fades quickly, leaving us constantly craving the next hit.

And it’s this fleeting emotion that could explain why the pursuit of happiness is so endemic in our modern lives; it’s the perfect tool to sell us things. As Mad Men’s (pretty miserable) ad genius Don Draper succinctly put it: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness”. It’s the idea that if we buy that one perfect handbag/car/flat, our lives will be complete and happiness will be the inevitable outcome.

Coca-Cola rather fittingly subscribes to Draper’s point of view: last month it launched its Choose Happiness campaign. They’re not the only ones: “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” and Disneyland’s “The happiest place on Earth” became household slogans in the Eighties thanks to advertising agencies’ ability to speak to our most fundamental desire.

And it’s the marketing ploy that keeps on giving. A recent report from media researchers Zenith Optimedia found that the brands that are most likely to secure long-lasting and loyal relationships with millennials are those that make them happy and engage them emotionally – hence McDonald’s famous “I’m lovin’ it”.

Plus it’s women that advertisers are targeting: in the US women represent a $7trillion market and make 85% of household purchases. Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty has been cited as one of the most effective ad campaigns ever by Forbes magazine because it makes women feel “beautiful and more confident”, boosting their happiness levels.

It’s this clever marketing tool that could be exactly the reason happiness is eluding us long-term. “We’re an instant gratification generation,” says Dr Campbell. “We’re so used to having everything we want instantly, and we expect happiness to be the same. We chase money, status or more material acquisitions to give us an instant buzz. Our values as a society are skewed: we’re always being encouraged to compare ourselves to others, to want more and be less content with what we have. It’s no wonder so many people are unhappy.”

How to be happy

"Our values as a society are skewed: we’re always being encouraged to compare ourselves to others"

"Our values as a society are skewed: we’re always being encouraged to compare ourselves to others"

So if we accept that the three-bedroom house with a garden and Fired Earth bathroom isn’t going to make us happy in perpetuity – then what is? According to an important study in 2008 by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, using data from twins, 50% of our happiness is genetically pre-determined.

Our environment and circumstances also play a part. Extensive research by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson comparing economic data and happiness surveys across the world found that, contrary to the adage that money can’t buy you happiness, the rich are happier than the poor. Yet the Office for National Statistics has found that being married is 20 times more important to our wellbeing than earnings.

It found that having children has almost no impact on a person’s day-today happiness, although it does make people feel that life is more ‘worthwhile’. It also discovered that people are generally happier in their youth and when they are older, concluding: “Middle-aged people are the least happy because they have the most responsibility.” Everyday annoyances can play a part, too: those who spend an hour on their journey to work have been found to be significantly less happy than those who don’t commute.

However, Professor Lyubomirsky found that circumstantial factors – including race, gender, wealth and personal history – only made up 10% of our happiness. The remaining 40% is subject to our own control. That’s where things get tricky; we feel it’s up to us to ensure we achieve the highest score possible all the time.

Vicious circle

"Not only are we seeking happiness in the wrong places, the fact we’re seeking it at all is the problem"

"Not only are we seeking happiness in the wrong places, the fact we’re seeking it at all is the problem"

It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which the more obsessed we become with happiness, the more the industry bombards us with self-help books, CDs and apps offering a blueprint for wellbeing, and the more we continue in our obsession. Self-help is the world’s bestselling genre of books and in 2008, 74% of family and relationship self-help books were bought by women.

Jo Usmar, co-author of This Book Will Make You Happy, attributes the popularity of the genre to the fact we now place as much importance on our mental health as our physical health. “Wellbeing is rightly taking its place at the forefront of popular culture,” she says. “People are finally realising depression and anxiety are totally normal, and that it’s not taboo to ask for help and to want to take active steps to feel happier.” Yet 80% of self-help consumers will buy another one in the same year, suggesting that they’re not providing the answers we hope they will.

Not only are we seeking happiness in the wrong places, the fact we’re seeking it at all is the problem. Focusing a great deal of attention on ourselves has been proven to undermine happiness. A 2011 study by social psychologist Iris Mauss found that the greater the value people placed on happiness, the more lonely they felt, possibly because in focusing on themselves, they stopped focusing on relationships with others – relationships which bring joy as a by-product.

The 75-year Harvard Grant Study into what makes a fulfilling life found that having supportive, strong relationships is the only thing that really matters. A sense of purpose is also vital, increasing wellbeing and life satisfaction, boosting self-esteem and warding off depression.

And when it comes to our careers, feeling connected to our work is far more important than making money. Helping others has been proven to provide long-term happiness. Volunteering improves people’s wellbeing, according to a 2013 review from the University of Exeter.

Perfect balance

"Happiness is great but happiness plus the other bits is the real thing."

"Happiness is great but happiness plus the other bits is the real thing."

The problem with constant happiness is it’s neither possible, nor desirable. Evolutionary biologists believe that our happiness levels are programmed not to rise above a certain threshold. In the earliest days of humanity, happiness was a goal to ensure our survival. Too much of it and we would have given up doing what was necessary to keep ourselves alive.

The same applies now: we need to feel sad, upset or angry in order to feel empathy; without those emotions, we’d never try to help others. In fact, research shows sadness is useful. A 2013 study at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam found that experiencing 10% of sadness in our lives is actually good for us as it curbs negative behaviour and encourages us to walk away from unhappy situations.

“It’s important to accept that you will be unhappy sometimes, as well as angry, hurt, dissatisfied and just fine,” says Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at LSE and author of Happiness By Design. “If you’re striving to be happy all the time, you’re not going to succeed, and you’ll feel disappointed with yourself, which will make you feel worse. All our emotions are valuable, and we need to be accepting of the bad as well as the good.”

Just consider what total happiness would be like. We’d exhaust everyone around us. We all appreciate an upbeat answer to, “How was your weekend?” But we also enjoy hearing about disastrous job interviews and Tinder dates. Happiness is great but happiness plus the other bits is the real thing.

Words: Polly Dunbar

How happy are you really?

Six Stylist readers rate their happiness levels

Lizzie Pook

Fear for others

Lizzie Pook, 29, is a journalist who lives with her boyfriend in south London

Why: “I’m not an unhappy person but for me to be truly happy, I need to know my family members are happy too and that’s just not achievable on a daily basis.”

Happiness level: 2/5


Stuck in a rut

Megan Gordon, 30, is a digital account manager who lives with her best friend in east London

Why: “The past two years have been a whirlwind of change and now I feel like I’ve stagnated, like the challenges have dried up.”

Happiness level: 3/5


Almost complete

Vanessa Forte, 25, is a recruitment headhunter who lives with three flatmates in west London

Why: “I have supportive parents and friends, a great job and I dance a lot, which is my passion. All that remains is to meet someone special!”

Happiness level: 4/5


A cloud's lifted

Sofia Hedblom, 35, is a fashion stylist who lives with her husband and dog in east London

Why: “I recently found out my dad’s tumour is showing no signs of growing, so a cloud of fear has lifted. Now I appreciate the little things.”

Happiness level: 4/5


Family worries

Jen Thomas, 28, is a customer services manager who lives with her boyfriend in Nottingham

Why: “I have a wonderful boyfriend and I’m making progress as a writer, but I’m worried about my dad, who has some health problems.”

Happiness level: 4.5/5



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