6 Myths About Happiness, Debunked

You know your home country puts massive emphasis on happiness when the pursuit of it is even referred to as an “unalienable right” in the Declaration of Independence. Yet for all that we value it, how to reach that coveted state of being is still up for debate. There are happiness hacks, inspiring books, motivational speakers, and more, but there’s no cut-and-dried, tried-and-true approach that works for every person, all the time. There are however, plenty of myths about happiness.

In Colin Beavan’s new book, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind Happiness That Helps the World , however, the author and activist lays out how to make your life happier, focusing specifically how we can help the world while we help ourselves. He tackles everything from finding meaning in our work to building relationships that will make us feel more secure and content. Along the way, he even tackles the things we incorrectly assume can make us happier.

How to Be Alive is eye-opening. Beavan recognizes that since we’re all different, what will bring us happiness varies as well. In spite of that challenge, he’s able to provide useful advice, real-life examples, and exercises that can help us all inject more meaning into our lives.

Here are seven common myths about happiness and why they’re problematic, based on How to Be Alive:

1. Happiness Is A Checklist

Wonderful as it would be to tackle one list item at a time with a definitive end goal, the world and our relationship to it — both of which affect our happiness — are constantly changing. While Beavan does recommend focusing on small, tangible actions to improve our level of joy, it’s not a one-and-done process. You may address one area, only to have to return to it later.

2. You Have To Make Big Changes To Find Happiness

As mentioned above, small changes can have a huge impact. Beavan suggests that incremental steps affect other areas of our lives, creating more substantial results. Not only that, they encourage what he calls “a life that supports making the big changes.”

3. More Stuff Will Make You Happier

It’s easy buy or acquire things with the expectation that they’ll make us happier, but Beavan argues that we’re often actually trying to recreate experiences. He uses the example of the time he bought a boat, only to realize later that it wasn’t the vessel he wanted so much as the quality time with friends he associated boating with.

4. You Should Focus On Security Before Happiness

Here’s a somewhat disturbing fact for you: The average 21-year-old recent college graduate is down to approximately 550,000 hours remaining in her life, according to Beavan. He estimates that another half of that time is spent doing essential activities like sleeping, eating, washing, and exercising, so the number quickly gets drastically smaller. With a limited amount of time left in our lives, we should be thinking about how to be happy now, not years from now. On top of that, as Beavan points out, pursuing security before happiness assumes that the latter requires money. While we do need to be able to support ourselves, the two are not mutually exclusive.

5. Happiness Is Derived From External Rewards

Using a cute example involving a puzzle-solving rhesus monkey he calls Jane, Beavan highlights the concept of intrinsic motivation. Humans don’t have to have external rewards to find an activity worth doing. In fact, we, like Jane, may find that there are certain activities that are more fulfilling to do for the sake of our own enjoyment rather than for any extrinsic incentive.

6. Happiness Comes Through Sacrifice

Much like we shouldn’t assume that money leads to happiness, we shouldn’t assume that trying to be happy means giving up our financial security completely. Beyond just finances, there are ways to find balance that don’t mean you have to sacrifice one thing entirely to get another. As Beavan writes, “You may wind up making changes in your life, but if they bring you happiness, you’re not likely to see them as sacrifices.”

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