In The Myths of Happiness, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky looks to the research to answer seminal questions about relationships, work, and money.
Namely, what makes us happy? And what doesn’t?
The Taoists tell a story about an old farmer who worked his crops for many years with a beloved horse. One day, the horse ran away. When the neighbors heard the news, they gathered to commiserate with him. “Such bad luck,” they said. “May be,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned with six other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors rejoiced. “May be,” replied the old farmer.
The next day, the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors came again to offer their sympathy. “May be,” answered the farmer.
The day after that, military officers came to the village to conscript young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed over him. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer answered.
Lyubomirsky tells this story in The Myths of Happiness to remind us that joy and tragedy are often intertwined. The best and worst moments of a person’s life are sometimes even one and the same.
Lyubomirsky argues that we misinterpret the turning points in our lives. We overrate the happiness gains of job hopping, for instance, and place too much value on the traditional signals of adulthood. We overreact to our initial emotional impressions, create outsized expectations, and overcomplicate decisions.
Although it’s not easy to lay down a prescription to correct all of these fundamental happiness errors, there are five major myths of happiness that struck me as I was reading the book.
Myth #1: The Paradox of Small Pains
Lyubomirsky says that because we seek comfort and counsel when the big things in life get us down, “we often paradoxically suffer pain and distress from the little things longer than from the big things.” Not acknowledging the little cuts can do more damage than treating the big cuts. As the saying goes, death by a thousand cuts.
We tend not to seek social support for the little bad things, in part because we expect that others will not care half as much as we do … Furthermore, studies have shown that disclosing minor traumas leads well-meaning others to express their support by minimizing or downplaying them (”Too bad Charlie had a temper tantrum on the flight, but the trip could have been so much worse”) and implying that we shouldn’t feel as bad as we do, which has the consequence of making us feel even worse.
The solution? Build a network of trusted confidants who are willing to listen to your problems, however minor, and provide non-judgmental empathy.
The catch? You’ll have to do the same for them.
It can be hard to put yourself in another person’s shoes and really empathize with their troubles, especially if you don’t think you would react the same way. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past. But we human beings often just need a reminder that other people understand where we’re coming from.
Even the tiniest cut can lead to an infection in your entire body. Better to treat the pains right away.
Myth #2: The Hand Puppet Problem
Researchers wanted to answer the question, Who can best shrug off unfavorable comparisons with peers? Happy people or unhappy people?
The experiment design called for two volunteers who were each given two hand puppets in order to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of first-graders.
The first group of participants was told they were rated 2 out of 7 by the (fake) first-graders, but that the other participant received a 1 out of 7.
The second group was told they were rated 6 out of 7, but that the other person got a perfect 7.
The control group acted out their scenario alone, with no comparison.
The results? For happy people, the results were as expected: Learning another person did better in the second group didn’t affect their happiness.
For unhappy people, the peer’s review mattered more than their own feedback. They were happier in the first group, and unhappier in the second.
Thus, another myth of happiness is shattered. How you do relative to others seems to matter more than absolute results, at least when it comes to unhappy people. The relative income hypothesis says something very similar, except about earning.
The solution is to get happy first. The happy participants shrugged off the comparison in the second group, and focused on how well they did individually.
We often expect the exact opposite: Doing well will lead to happiness. In fact, happiness seems to exist independently of doing well or doing poorly.
Myth #3: The Myth of Homeownership
The myth of homeownership is strong, even as the benefits are greatly exaggerated. The truth is that “homeownership” as it is practiced in the United States and in other Western countries can rob people of wealth and time. Your own home can become a debtor’s prison as you work to pay back your bank.
Researchers have found—contrary to popular beliefs about the “American dream”—that home owners are less happy than renters, derive more pain from ownership of their homes, and spend more time on housework and less time interacting with their friends and neighbors. If you can’t afford many of the things in life that gratify, amuse, or make daily life easier, rent them.
When my fiancee and I bought a house, we had this myth at the forefront of our minds, so we pursued unconventional tactics to swing the purchase in our favor.
Myth #4: Happy vs. Unhappy Memories
Lyubomirsky ran an experiment where participants were asked to repeatedly replay or analyze the happiest and unhappiest days of their lives.
What she found was a startling asymmetry: Participants were unhappy analyzing happy events, but felt better analyzing negative ones. Conversely, participants were content to merely replay happy events, but were unhappy reliving past traumas.
The lesson? It’s worth analyzing past mistakes with self-compassion in order to draw life lessons.
But happy memories should simply be enjoyed.
Myth #5: The Billion-Dollar Question
Lyubomirsky cites the work of Malcolm Gladwell and others who have popularized the notion that diligence and deliberate practice are more important factors than raw talent.
The so-called 10,000 hour rule is an artifact of that movement. But Lyubomirsky suggests that in emphasizing practice, we’ve assumed more than we’re letting on:
That piece is really the billion-dollar question: How do we compel ourselves to complete those ten thousand hours?
In other words, how did Ben Franklin make himself copy and rewrite entire published essays? How do night owls force themselves to get up at 5 AM every day? How do young children practice violin for hours every single day?
Critics of finding your passion miss this point and they miss it badly.
Science is learning that intrinsic motivation—the sort of stuff embodied by the Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose Principle—is at the core of a fulfilling and happy work life.
Passion and purpose (the non-crazy, non-Strawman versions of them) are at the core of leading a satisfying life. Lyubomirsky’s goal with The Myths of Happiness is to draw our attention to the latest scientific research on happiness so that we’re better equipped to make good decisions at the major turning points in our lives.