Personal well-being in the United States has slipped from number 12 to 23 in the Gallup worldwide survey. Gallup gathers responses to five areas of life:
Purpose: I like what I do every day, typically because I learn or do something interesting.
Social: Family and friends always encourage me to be healthy, and provide a boost of positive energy every day.
Financial: I have enough money to do everything I want to do, although I have worried about money in the past week.
Community: I live in an area that is a perfect place for me, and in the past year I’ve received recognition for helping to improve the place that live.
Physical: I’ve felt active and productive every day in the past week, and my physical health is near-perfect.
How well do you rate your level of well-being on these five dimensions? Are these the factors you focus on to improve your well-being? Psychologists find that people are notoriously bad at understanding what will bring them life satisfaction. Researchers have uncovered 3 major myths surrounding happiness that permeate our society.
The first myth is that the positive external events that occur in our lives will bring long term happiness. We imagine that getting a promotion, having our favorite sports team win, or going out for a fabulous dinner will make us much happier than it really will. External situations contribute only 20% to our overall level of well-being.
Money is the classic example. Making and spending money does make us happy, but just a little bit and for a very short time. Meanwhile, the amount of time and energy that we devote to attaining material possessions could be better invested in other activities that would produce much higher levels of well-being.
The second myth is that people are born happy or unhappy. Many folks, especially those who are languishing, don’t believe they can change their level of happiness. But the recent positive psychology research has found that people with high levels of well-being follow particular patterns of behavior in their daily lives. When people who aren’t so happy are taught to make the same choices, their lives become much happier.
Here’s a sampling of the behaviors that happy people live by in their day-to-day life:
- They nurture and enjoy their relationships with family and friends.
- They frequently express gratitude for what they have.
- They appreciate the good things that happen every day.
- They love helping other people.
- They’re optimistic about their future.
- They make exercise a regular ritual.
- They routinely do things to further their life-long goals.
- They play to their strengths when confronting challenges.
The third myth is the notion that you’ll be happy when something eventually changes to improve your life. How many times have you thought, “I’ll be happy if I win the lottery.” The fallacy of this way of thinking is that it presupposes that happiness is something to be found in some other time or place.
Sometimes people fondly recall a time in the past that they were happy and hope to recreate those days in the future. For example, they remember their college days or the first few years of their marriage. They imagine that recreating those circumstances would make them happy. But if they think back to those times, they can recollect thinking then that they’d be happy once they were out of school and making money. Or early in their marriage they thought they’d be happy once they could afford their own home.
The only circumstances to be concerned about when it comes to being happy are those occurring right here right now. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says it best in The How of Happiness: “If you’re not happy today, then you won’t be happy tomorrow unless you take things into your own hands and take action.”
Review the five statements at the beginning of the column. From that list, identify a behavior that would make your life more satisfying. Decide what actions you need to take every day to enhance your well-being that area. Then imagine that you’ve been successful in making improvements. How will it feel to be living life with those behaviors occurring almost every day?
As you know, it’s hard to make changes. When thinking about implementing new behaviors, ask yourself what internal obstacles would hold you back from actually taking action. Lack of time? Forgetfulness? Once you’ve identified your block, create an “If___, then___” statement: “If I’ll forget, then I’ll put a reminder in my phone.”