By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, BSW, MSW, RSW
In the past twenty years much has been achieved in the field of happiness research: defining meaning across cultures and time, identifying how to measure it, and who has it. Nowadays, you can’t cross a social media site without running into happiness research in some shape or form.
High happiness levels not only mean we get to experience general happiness, happiness has been shown to facilitate pursuit of important goals, help strengthen critical social bonds, widen our realm of focus and attention and increase general psychological health. (Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011).
But, in the therapy room, clients often express frustration with happiness tips. Whatever the source, (most of which are reputable, science-backed and well-meaning), I hear a great deal of feedback that quick tips on how to get happy don’t really seem to help, can feel like band-aid solutions, or worse, invalidate our emotional experience. That is understandable.
While research on this topic is certainly beneficial, it is still in relatively early days. The findings gathered over the past few decades can’t possibly work as a one-size-fits-all prescription for how to get happiness. Most happiness tips are derived from research about people who are already happy – not necessarily about how they got there in the first place. And, even when we learn that “happy people” tend to have common behaviours and belief systems, we have to remember that belief systems and behaviours don’t just change because we want them to.
A page of tips likely won’t explore the complex process through which “happy people” began to adopt these happy behaviours and beliefs in the first place. What we know is that having a really strong positive self-view, feeling good about ourselves, or a general belief that we are good and worthwhile has been touted as one of the best predictors of happiness. (Davis, 2016).
It’s important to be aware that many of the research-backed tips for happiness work best for those with an absence of difficulties coping with stress, anxiety or depressive symptoms and an existing foundation of emotional resilience.Unfortunately, a good starting foundation is not the reality for many of us who have lived with stress, low mood or anxiety. All of these tips will fall likely leave no mark if we have not yet revealed and challenged any deep-seated negative beliefs we might hold about our worth, our future, the world on the whole, and the goodness of other people.
What happens when we try to layer happiness thoughts and behaviours on top of our distorted, self-critical or world-critical ones? The deeply engrained beliefs will likely win out, and the happiness thoughts will be quickly discounted and discarded, leaving minimal if any lasting positive benefit. In fact, the entire process can actually add to our discouragement, as we slip into further thoughts of self-hatred and hopelessness for the future: why can’t I even do this simple thing to make me happy! Something must be seriously wrong with me.
To save yourself from frustration, try your best to watch your thoughts and emotions with curiosity and non-judgement as you attempt to apply happiness tips. Be on the lookout for disparaging, hopeless and unhelpful thoughts that come up for you. These are all indicators that it’s likely time to address issues of stress, anxiety and depression in a therapeutic environment. Remember that there might be more work untangling some deeper and more damaging beliefs before these tips can really have an impact.
if happiness tips make you feel crappy, remember you are not alone, and that discovering this is still a step in the right direction.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more support for anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.
- Davis, T., (2016). Four Steps to Feeling Better About Yourself. From: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_steps_to_feeling_better_about_yourself
- Gruber, J., Mauss, I., Tamir, M., (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(3), 222-233.