The Science Behind 5 Classic Happiness Clichés

the science behind happiness cliches

We all roll our eyes at happiness clichés: “Live, laugh, love.” “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Even if there’s some truth in inspirational sayings, anything you’ve ever seen crocheted on a pillow or framed on Michael Scott’s wall is automatically suspect.

This week, to celebrate the 200th episode of Savvy Psychologist, we’ll look at the science behind 5 happiness clichés and find new, fresh ways to put them into action. In other words, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Hey, wouldn’t that look good on a pillow?

  1. “Don’t worry, be happy.”
  2. “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”
  3. “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
  4. “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
  5. “Live every day as if it were your last.”

Let’s explore the science behind each happiness cliché.

What the cliché really means: It’s okay to feel life’s ups and downs.

The happiness and positive psychology movements, while revolutionary, have had one major negative side effect: an expectation that we are happy all the time.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen an upsurge in young adults who come to therapy mistaking the downs and struggle of everyday life as a sign of something gone seriously wrong. Multiple young people have needed my assurance that it’s normal to feel sad after a breakup, fine to be anxious at exam time, or okay to feel unsure during a big transition. They worry that feeling anything less than happy, motivated, and radiating confidence isn’t good enough.

Therefore, instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” let’s update the saying to include normal emotional variation. Indeed, it’s okay to feel incompetent, especially when you’re pushing yourself to learn something new. It’s totally normal to feel anxious when you don’t have a ton of experience doing something. It’s important to feel bored occasionally—the best ideas are born when our minds aren’t otherwise occupied with Netflix, YouTube, or even, dare I say, podcasts.

Let’s take it even further: if we’re willing to frontload feeling lousy, we set ourselves up for true happiness. What do I mean? A 2018 study found that the activities that make us happiest—those that allow us to enter a flow state—are often inconvenient and suck up a lot of bandwidth.

A huge study of nearly 100,000 people across 94 countries found that people who believe their lives have meaning or purpose, regardless of how they feel about their income, are happier with their life.

It’s true: it’s a hassle to work up the energy to dive into an intense, focused activity like making art, training for a sport, or writing a story. It can be daunting to work on your standup comedy act or sit down at the piano to master that tricky section of Rhapsody in Blue. But flow—and many other activities that make us truly happy—require an investment of energy and hassle at the get-go.

So think of negative emotion as an investment. You don’t have to throw out your Hakuna Matata mug, but see the ups and downs of daily life as part of a normal, healthy rhythm.

What the cliché really means: Find your purpose to fight stress and take care of yourself.

About a kazillion studies, as well as common sense, have concluded that having a purpose increases both quality and quantity of life. What exactly is purpose? Well, like jazz or porn, you know it when you see it. For our purposes (ha-ha), we’ll define it as feeling directed and motivated by your goals and values. Why is this so important? There are a couple of theories.

One is that having a purpose may prompt you to take better care of yourself. Taking care of yourself implies that you and what you’re doing with your life are worth taking care of.

Beyond that, it’s thought that purpose shields us from the weathering effects of stress. For example, one study found that when students reported their lives weren’t meaningful, the hassles of everyday life were coupled with symptoms of depression. But when students reported higher meaning and purpose, the link between daily hassles and depression weakened. The conclusion? Purpose buffers us from stress.

Regardless of how exactly it works, we know that purpose is directly linked to happiness.

A huge study of nearly 100,000 people across 94 countries found that people who believe their lives have meaning or purpose, regardless of how they feel about their income, are happier with their life.

What the cliché really means: Organize your life so you don’t have to exert discipline.

Discipline, better known as self-control, is a topic hotter than a jalapeño with a fever.

Self-control, defined as resisting temptation in the moment, is important. It’s hard to be happy if you get sidetracked by every shiny object in your field of vision.

However, there is much disagreement about the nature of self-control. Some say it’s a finite resource to be conserved, while others say it’s like a muscle, strengthening the more you use it.

But as a hot-off-the-presses study shows, the thinking has evolved. The study, by two Canadian researchers, followed 159 college students and found that resisting temptation had nothing to do with success. Instead, simply experiencing temptation, whether or not they resisted, left the students feeling depleted and less likely to reach their goals. It wasn’t about self-control at all—it was more how they organized their environment.

So how to apply this? Practice the counterintuitive practice of “effortless self-control.” Organize your work and life to minimize temptation. Use an app to keep you offline while you’re working. Put your phone in a drawer while you do your homework. If you want to stick to your diet, don’t go to McDonalds and try to piece together a healthy meal. Just go somewhere where the entire menu is healthy.

No matter how you phrase it—do one thing every day that scares you, get out of your comfort zone, just do it—follow the advice and avoid avoidance.

What the cliché really means: Avoid avoidance.

Avoidance feeds pretty much every mental health challenge there is. Avoiding the things that make us feel nervous, incompetent, awkward, or dumb keeps us safely in our comfort zone, but also keeps us from learning that we’re more capable than we ever imagined, and that the world isn’t as dangerous or unfriendly as we thought. All in all, it ties right back to the first truism we talked about: it’s okay to feel life’s ups and downs.

So no matter how you phrase it—do one thing every day that scares you, get out of your comfort zone, just do it—follow the advice and avoid avoidance.

What the cliché really means: Imagine time is scarce.

Advice on seizing the day spans the centuries, from “carpe diem” to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” to YOLO. How to do this? Think of time as finite. This is the one place an abundance mindset backfires. Counterintuitively, to increase happiness, aim for scarcity.

For example, one study randomly assigned college seniors in their last semester to write about their college experience for 10 minutes. One half was prompted by the phrase, “keep in mind that you only have a short amount of time left…about 1,200 hours.” The other half was prompted by the phrase “keep in mind that you have a significant amount of time left…about 1/10th of a year.”

Over the next two weeks, the researchers followed up multiple times, always asking how often the students had spent time with friends, hung out in the quad, went to a favorite campus restaurant or bar, took a scenic route around campus, or otherwise took part in college-related fun or nostalgia.

Turns out those in the time-is-scarce group did more of the activities and reported being happier than the time-is-plentiful group.

Plus, a time-is-scarce mindset doesn’t just work for college kids. A 2018 study randomly assigned participants to pretend it was their last month in their current city or to live as they usually did. The result? Those in the pretending-to-move-in-a-month group reported doing more and feeling greater connectedness and well-being. Turns out simply imagining you have to seize the month leads to seizing the day.

A final note: whether this is your first episode or you’ve listened to all 200, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are amazing, caring, and thoughtful, and I’m honored that you take the time to listen to the show. You are the reason the show has come this far.

how to be yourself ellen hendriksen bookOrder Ellen’s book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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