Why Our Ideas About Happiness Are Backwards

- | 64 Aha! comments | Posted in category: Happiness, Self Improvement

A road signboard showing the way to happiness

This is a guest post by Kira Newman. She is a digital journalist and among other things, she also writes about happiness.

Why is it so hard to achieve happiness? Maybe we are thinking about it backwards.

In a TEDx talk, entrepreneur Nataly Kogan tells a familiar story: after growing up poor, she decided that she needed money and success to live a happy life.

She believed: If I get the things I want, I will be happy.

Nataly worked hard for 20 years until she was driving around in a fancy car, pushing her daughter in a fancy stroller, and living in a fancy house. She “had it all,” but she was unhappy and exhausted.

This was a shock to her, but it is not a shock to psychology researchers.

In the late 90s, a comprehensive review of happiness science found that circumstances account for only about 10% of our happiness.

Maybe we dream of moving to a more beautiful city, where the weather is nicer. We believe we’d be so much happier there, and we imagine long walks in the sun or cool afternoons in the shade.

But according to studies, climate has no effect on our happiness.

Maybe we dream of getting a better job and making more money. We think about eating out at gourmet restaurants and buying expensive toys for our kids.

But again, we are probably mistaken. One famous study revealed that after $75,000 a year, making more money does not make us happier.

Maybe we dream of being more beautiful, with shiny hair and dazzling eyes. Or we lament our aches and pains, our creaky knees and sore backs.

As hard as it is to believe, the science proves us wrong. Objective health and physical attractiveness have little effect on happiness.

How can this be? It is because of something called adaptation, the way we quickly get used to our life circumstances and start to take things for granted.

Studies have shown that we adapt to getting married within about two years and to winning the lottery within one. The initial glow of true love or a big jackpot wears off, and we return to our old happiness levels.

We start to get annoyed by life’s little hassles again.

In fact, psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a whole book about how terrible we are at predicting what will make us happy, called Stumbling on Happiness. “We seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become,” he wrote.

Psychology blogger Britt Reints is another great example. In her TEDx talk, she shares a similar story to Nataly’s. Years ago, she had a kind and generous husband, plenty of money in her bank account, and a strong community at her church.

But she was desperately unhappy, so unhappy that she thought she wanted to divorce her husband.

How did she overcome her struggle? It was not by finding a better husband or making more money. It was by changing her attitude.

A child upside down and smiliing

Flipping Happiness Upside-Down

The main life change Britt made was deciding to live authentically.

She would no longer do what she was “supposed to” do; she would follow her heart and her values and live a life that was genuine.

She also started a gratitude practice, writing about her “happiness highlights” on her blog.

The science shows that practices like gratitude have a much bigger impact on happiness than our circumstances.

If circumstances account for 10% of our happiness and genetics account for 50%, voluntary practices and behaviors account for as much as 40%.

We spend all our time chasing after money and success, thinking it will bring fulfillment, when the real way to get happier is to change our thoughts and feelings. For example:

  • Grateful people are happier: Practicing gratitude changes our perspective, so we are more likely to notice and focus on the positive things in our lives.
  • Kind people are happier: We actually get more happiness out of spending a small amount of money on others rather than on ourselves.
  • Mindful people are happier: We are happier when we are paying attention to the present rather than distracted by thoughts about the past or future, even if they are
  • Forgiving people are happier: Learning to let go of past grudges and move on with our lives releases us from lingering negative emotions.
  • Self-compassionate people are happier: We find more peace when we can drop the critical voice in our heads and show ourselves love and understanding.

When we become happier through gratitude, mindfulness, kindness, and other practices, then something funny happens. All those things we want – to have a great marriage, to lose weight, to get a promotion at work – are suddenly much more likely to happen.

Happy people are more likely to get married, have fulfilling and loving marriages, and not get divorced. Happy people have more social support and more friends. Maybe we do not need a relationship to make us happy; maybe getting happy will help us build better relationships.

Happy people actually have better health – less chronic pain, more active immune systems, and less chance of diabetes or a stroke. They even live longer, as much as seven years more. Grateful people sleep a half hour more every night and exercise 33% longer per week.

Maybe we do not need to lose weight to be happy; maybe we’ll be more motivated to lose weight once we are happy.

Happy people are more creative and productive. They have better job security, and they make more money than unhappy people.

The lesson? If we want a promotion to make us happy, stop waiting; get happy first, and then we might get that raise.

All of this is so counterintuitive because it goes against many of the things we hear from our parents and society.

We are taught to make more money, succeed, get married – and then we’ll have a good life. It is hard to believe that the happiness comes first, and hard to imagine happiness without all these things.

These findings are the reason why I created The Year of Happy, a free online course in the science of happiness.

It starts January 1 and pulls readings and videos from across the Internet so you can learn to be happier in a simple, low-commitment, fun way (2 hours a week). Each month focuses on a practice in the 40% category: things like optimism, gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, and savoring. I’d love for you to join, become happier – and then see all your wishes come true.

Over to You –

What is your idea about happiness? How do you try to be happier in life? Share in the comments.

Photo Credit: Mike RastielloFreeDigitalPhotos

(Dear readers, we were compensated for publishing this post, and because it contains value, which will be useful for all the readers of Aha!NOW, we agreed to do so. This is a step towards discovering and spreading happiness, which is the prime objective of Aha!NOW. Thanks).

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64 Comments - Read and share thoughts

  1. Amul Sharma

    2014-12-11 at 9:32 pm

    Hi Kira Newman,
    wow! this is really a beautiful post….i am totally agree with you, i am feeling happy after reading this post….great ideas are available here….Happiness is right of everyone…life is not possible without happiness so happiness is the most essential feature of life. you must have positive views in your mind because your positive views creates positive energy and then positive energy creates happiness so develop your positive views. Grateful people are happier,Kind people are happier,Mindful people are happier,Forgiving people are happier and Self-compassionate people are happier are the best topic of this post….very very thanks for sharing this……
    Thanks again!
    Amul Sharma

    • Kira Newman

      2014-12-11 at 11:44 pm

      Hi Amul,

      Thanks for reading!

      I liked that you said, “You must have positive views in your mind because your positive views creates positive energy and then positive energy creates happiness so develop your positive views.” It’s definitely a cycle. With gratitude, for example – if you try to be more grateful, you’ll feel happier, and then you’ll feel like you have more things to be grateful about.

      That’s what’s great about all these practices – they reinforce each other and set in motion something good 🙂


  2. Don Purdum

    2014-12-11 at 6:22 pm

    Hi Kira,

    Happpiness… So many are chasing the ideas they think will make them happy they end up making themselves miserable chasing things instead of realizing what you have is a blessing!

    It’s a mindset that is created from insecurity and / or fear. But it can be changed if we just learn that things never make us happy. Only the people we love and who love us can do that. Happiness is found in relationships that are important to us.

    I learned as an Army Chaplain that if you want happiness that lasts then be willing to make others happy and focus on them instead of on yourself. The root of happiness is in giving, not receiving.

    Fantastic post Kira! Your article made my day!

    ~ Don Purdum

    • Kira Newman

      2014-12-11 at 11:40 pm

      Hi Don,

      Thanks, that’s so nice to hear! I’m glad my article brought a smile to your face.

      I’ve heard that there are only two motivations in life: fear or love. In the end, you’re either doing something out of fear or doing it out of love – whether it’s pursuing a career, continuing a relationship, or chasing happiness. Of course, it’s obvious which one of these motivations is healthier.

      What you say is interesting – maybe pursuing external things to make us happy is a kind of fear or insecurity. We worry that by ourselves we’re not enough, we can’t just be happy as we are, and we need all these external supports. The kind of internal happiness that comes from loving yourself and others is more secure and stable.


  3. Neamat Tawadrous

    2014-12-11 at 8:51 am

    Hi Kira,

    Welcome to Aha!Now and it is a pleasure meeting you here!!

    I really enjoyed reading this post!! This sentence summarize the whole post: “The science shows that practices like gratitude have a much bigger impact on happiness than our circumstances” and this is very true as a grateful heart is a joyful heart.

    In my humble opinion nothing like gratitude can make us happy as it changes our mindset and attitude to see things from a positive perspective.

    Thanks Kira for a great share and a pleasure meeting you. Thanks Harleena for inviting Kira to write such a powerful post. I enjoyed it so much.

    You both enjoy the rest of your week.

    Be Blessed,


    • Kira Newman

      2014-12-11 at 11:34 pm

      Hi Neamat,

      Thanks for the welcome!

      You’re right, gratitude is so powerful. One of the gratitude experts says that it’s so much more complex than we think. Once you start thinking gratefully, all these positive changes take place. You see more and more positive things in life – suddenly, a little flower or a smile is so meaningful. You begin to notice all the people who have helped you in life and you feel appreciation for them. Every day becomes a gift rather than a chore. Life seems good and worth living for.

      Great to meet you, too,

  4. Ikechi Awazie

    2014-12-11 at 7:49 am

    Hi Kira

    Welcome to ABC. This is most certainly a wonderful post. I agree that we are not certainly good in knowing what makes us happy and I nodded in agreement that even when we have so much wealth it does not transcend to a happy life.

    Happiness to me comes from within. It isn’t affected by an external force. You don’t need to have everything going on for you to be happy. People fill sad and burnt out because they tie their happiness to a lot of things.

    Being grateful, kind, forgiving, compassionate and mindful does lead to a happy life. Thanks for sharing. Have a wonderful week

    • Kira Newman

      2014-12-11 at 11:29 pm

      Hi Ikechi,

      Thanks for the welcome.

      It’s funny that we pursue external things to be happy, because all around us there is proof that that’s the wrong strategy. I’m sure we all know people who seem to have everything in life, who are rich or have awesome jobs or have the best relationships, but aren’t happy.

      We also know people who have almost nothing but seem to be joyful and content. That alone should give us a clue!


Why Our Ideas About Happiness Are Backwards

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