Why happiness is making us unhappy - and what you can do about it for your wellbeing

Do you ever wonder why, in a society obsessed with happiness, we are more unhappy than ever before?

We do. We wonder about this all the time.

Might there be a coincidence that at a time in our social evolution, when we have been sold the illusory promise of happiness, we’re also experiencing a mental health crisis characterised by epidemics of depression and anxiety?

And might there be a coincidence, that depression rates are higher in countries that place a premium on happiness? Consider Australia; according to Beyond Blue, it's estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. And in any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety.

So, what’s going on here? Here are three widely held beliefs, and possible explanations:

We believe happiness is something you can attain.

We're pursuing happiness - because we've been told we can "have it" (…with a better job, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car – the list is endless). But happiness is a temporary, fleeting emotion and not a permanent state. This means that our feelings of happiness don’t last. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation which refers to our general tendency to return to a set level of happiness despite life’s ups and downs. For example, they’ve studied people who have won the lottery, and they tend to return their original levels of happiness after the novelty of the win has worn off. People become used to, or adapt to, the pleasure rather quickly; that the first bite of something delicious is experienced more pleasurable than the third or the tenth. So, the more time we spend chasing happiness, a fleeting emotion, hoping the feeling will stay, the less likely it will be, to actually feel good.

We believe that happiness, is the absence of unhappiness.

We believe that being happy, is never feeling unhappy - and that unhappiness is abnormal. Because of this, we're pretending to be happy, even when we’re not. In fact, we're even pretending to be happy, when we're struggling. And no one talks about it, because there's a stigma associated with being unhappy, and / or struggling. But one of the most wonderful things about being human and leading a rich and meaningful life is about experiencing, using and managing all our emotions. So, the longer we believe that we should never feel unhappy, the more negative the consequences. One must taste the sour to appreciate the sweet, so to speak. And research tells us that attempting to ignore our negative emotions, only serves to amplify them.

We’re seeking advice from self-help, ‘happiness gurus'.

The wellness industry is worth more than $6 trillion worldwide – which makes the industry, almost impossible to regulate. So, the more we turn to this industry, and these untried and untested ideas, the more ineffective the outcomes.

So, what can we do?

We need to consider a different perspective - wellbeing.

Happiness is part of leading a good life, but it’s just one part of it. We need to shift in focus from happiness to wellbeing. Wellbeing is the combination of feeling happy and functioning well. It’s about the balance of positive and negative emotions; having a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives; feeling engaged in what we do; and having meaningful and quality relationships. It takes a holistic approach and it’s based on psychological science.

We need to embrace the full spectrum of human emotions.

Emotions provide us with information about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Emotions are positive and negative. They are pleasant and unpleasant. But they are not good and bad. And without the negative emotions we cannot evaluate our experiences, or experience a true sense of satisfaction.

We need to use evidence based approaches.

Psychological science, specifically, positive psychology prescribes evidence-based approaches and strategies for improving and enhancing our psychological wellbeing. It is not self-help, life coaching or happy-ology – it is the scientific study of people to be at their best. The approaches and strategies prescribed by positive psychology are not based on the life experiences of one person! They have scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.

At MYNDLY we use psychological science to build wellbeing, for performance. We provide evidence based solutions for individuals and organisations.

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