As one of those few unhappy people that inhabit this planet, I wondered today if any research has been done on whether happy people are faking. Happiness is entirely subjective and therefore difficult to quantify, but surely scientists have studied what most people say is their primary goal in life. In the U.S., we even have it in our Declaration of Independence, as a divine gift, "the pursuit of happiness."
Among my Twitter crowd, happiness abounds in positive aphorisms, but most sound hollow and empty. "Life is short. Live it up," "Happiness is a state of mind," and the like make me nauseous. The happy cliches are abundant enough to convince me that a lot of people are concerned about contentment. But is this high prize this easily attainable?
Yes, I am asking the question: just how many of these happy people, with their shallow quotes, are fakes? I found some fascinating facts along my own pursuit of the truth behind happiness.
Trying to be happy makes you less happy
Simply glance on any social media, and you will see how prominent happy positive sentiments and quotes are. These people could actually be expressing heartfelt happiness, revealing a desire for it, or faking it altogether.
One problem with our passion for happiness is that it creates a cultural force, similar to peer pressure. Everybody else is happy, so you should be too.
Researchers have actually looked into the consequences of this pressure. You won't believe the results. The research indicates that the more obsessed people are with happiness, the less happy they become. If the focus of your life is trying to always be happy, you are less likely to attain it than if you couldn't care less. The pressure that this pursuit creates makes people more miserable.
For example, one study asked people how much emphasis they placed on happiness, and then asked how important they felt it was to strive toward happiness. The people with the most emphasis on attaining happiness were compared with people who focused more on other things.
The study found that of the people who emphasized being happy the most recorded 50% less contentment, 35% less satisfaction in life, and 75% more qualities of depression. This was when compared with the group who focused on other goals.
So, if finding happiness is the center of your life, you are likely less happy than you might be otherwise. This sounds very zen-like, but it makes sense, in that happiness is a fleeting emotion, and no human is happy all of the time. Many consider moments of pain and suffering to enhance the brief instances of total contentment.
The reason for the obsession is obvious in the evidence provided by other studies that show happiness provides:
- stronger and better social relationships.
- better sleep, creativity, and immunity from illness.
- powerful and strong intimate (romantic) relationships.
- kinder and more altruistic actions.
- better first impressions with other people.
However, the pressure to be happy still exists, and the expression "fake it until you make it" is now called positive psychology. In this genre, Gretchen Rubin wrote The Happiness Project, which suggests that “By acting as if you feel a certain way, you induce that emotion in yourself." So, her response to negativity is that “When I’m feeling an unpleasant feeling, I counteract it by behaving the way I wish I felt.”
This kind of mental trickery is also an essential part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. They suggest that recognizing a negative thought and counteracting it with a positive one will make you happier. Yes, there are many psychological theories built on this principle - if you are unhappy, just change your thinking and be happy.
As a depressed individual myself, I feel insulted by these therapies which at least seem to suggest that your mind is not sharp enough to detect that you are trying to manipulate it. This smacks of self-brainwashing. While this may work for some people, I can't numb my mind enough to put this one past it.
For this to work, I would have to somehow plant the idea in my mind without conscious recognition, which reminds me of the days when people actually thought that you could learn a language by listening to records while you slept.
This positive psychology and CBT are the supposed cure-all for depression, and the internet is rampant with ideas originating from them. Huge numbers of people buy into the psychology behind it.
Hence, in answer to my question, yes people fake happiness all the time, and social media is filled with cliches about the way people wish they felt. Therapies are based on the principal of faking happiness.
Happiness is far more complex and illusive than many would have us believe, including the fact that happiness is also connected to genetics, psychological, and social factors.
The soundest advice I have found is to center your life in the present moment, on yourself and other people. In working to connect with other people, to really help and care about them, you will one day wake up and realize "Hey, life doesn't suck that bad."
You might also enjoy these articles by Darin:
- Human evolution: Key to a happy life
- How to use cognitive science to crush writer's block
- Improve your mind now: Neuroscientific discoveries about mono-tasking
- Top Technology 2012: Neuroscientists Pinpoint Thoughts and Words in the Brain Using fMRI
Before going, what are your thoughts on happiness? What have I missed or got wrong?