The Science of Well-Being

Misconceptions About Happiness Part 2

If you missed out on part 1 of week two’s cliff notes from The Science of Well-Being, check on this blog post. Today we will go deeper into the misconceptions about happiness. Last post was about careers and salary. Today is about awesome stuff, true love, and a perfect body.

Awesome Stuff

If only I had _______ I would be so happy. What would you put in the blank? I think this answer is going to be different for a lot of us after going through the pandemic.

Sure, I have the obvious answers to put into the blank. If only I had my student loans forgiven, I would be so happy. If only I had the pair of jeans that fit just right, I would be so happy. Or Jose and I always play this game: If only we had a vacation house in some tropical place, we would be so happy.

Other people’s answers might be a fancier car, expensive alcohol, a big screen TV, a new iPad, smart home devices & systems, etc.

But is this stuff actually making us happier?

Well, we saw in the last blog post that people, 40-60 years ago, didn’t have half of the awesome “stuff” we have in today’s world. But they were just as happy.

And guess what. Not just buying that “stuff”. But also thinking about it and being materialistic, actually makes us worse off than we would be without wanting or striving for that “stuff”. Of course there are a lot of studies done to show that “stuff” doesn’t actually make us as happy as we think.

Nickerson, et al., studied this by surveying freshmen attitudes about materialism. Then 20 years later they re-surveyed the same group to test their predictions about materialist attitudes and life satisfaction.  They found that the people who reported materialist attitudes had a lower life satisfaction than the non-materialists, 20 years later. Actually, the group of people with more materialistic attitudes had more DSM diagnosed mental health disorders compared to the other group in the study.

If you seek out “stuff”, or think about seeking out “stuff”, assuming this “stuff” will make you happier does not equate to you actually being happier. And in fact, it can make you less happier.

True Love

We hear this a lot. Some of us might believe it to. If you can (or when you did) find your one true love, Mr. or Mrs. Perfect, than you will be happy and everything will be okay. We assume that being in a serious, long term relationship or getting married will make us happy. Heck, even Disney leads us to believe that true love is going to make us live happily ever after. But is this true?

Is falling in love and getting married, actually going to make us happier?

Well of course this has been studied. Lucas and colleagues looked at this. They surveyed a large group of people over many years. They asked the group of people who got married if they were happier and how long did this last?

What they found was that married people are in fact happier in the first year or two of marriage. In the honeymoon stage. But after that, it goes back to baseline. Married people are just as happy as the non-married people. And, if you self-report that you marriage is not a happy marriage, it can get even worse (Which seems obvious, but was a fact they pointed out from their study).

Another study, this time on a German population, found the same data. From when you meet your partner to right before you get married, your happiness is statistically higher than baseline. Then in your honeymoon phase your happiness levels stay elevated. But after the first year or 2, when the honeymoon phase is over, you’re back at your baseline again.

So maybe true love makes us happier for a little bit, but we eventually go back down to your baseline. We can’t count on a partner to make us happy. We need to find it within ourselves.

Perfect Looks

Does botox, plastic surgery, eye lash extensions, make up, dieting, etc, make you happier?

I hear this constantly, if I can just lose the last 10 pounds, I would be so much happier. But does this actually make you happier?

Jackson and colleagues looked at this data. They surveyed 2,000 obese people. So people who really, at least in terms of health, maybe should be losing weight.

They followed these people, tracking their diet program for 4 years. All 2,000 people were doing the same weight loss program. Some lost weight. Some gained weight. And some people weighed the same. All of them that started this program because they thought weight loss was  going to make them happy. But the question is, were they happy when they started the program and at 4 years later?

What they found was at the beginning, at baseline happiness/ depressed moods, were about the same for most participants. Four years later, the people that lost weight were actually less happier/ more depressed. Well, actually all groups were more depressed, but the ones that lost weight were the most depressed. So being in a weight loss program decreases your happiness and being successful makes you even more depressed. It is sort of like a visual illusion, like we talked about in this blog post. It is just not going to make us as happy as we think.

Maybe those people are obese because that is how they cope with their feelings. Maybe they are unhappy due to things they need to work out internally. Instead, they start a weight loss program, and no matter the outcome, they are still unhappy.

What about plastic surgery?

Are these extreme changes going to make you happier?

Von Soest and colleagues studied this. They looked at teenagers and surveyed them over 13 years. So just by chance, they’re going to have some portion of that population who eventually undergo cosmetic surgery. Some that won’t. The question is, does cosmetic surgery actually make them happier

Well, maybe the adolescents that actually get cosmetic surgery are just less happy to begin with?  Maybe there’s something about them, their own perception of their body image, and overall happiness levels, that leads them to get cosmetic surgery. Versus the group that does not have surgery; maybe they have a better view of themselves and internal ways to work on their happiness.

So just before surgery, happiness levels were taken surveyed. And as expected, the ones who gets plastic surgery are unhappy to begin with. They don’t like their physical appearance. But there was also an increase in some other really bad stuff; suicidal ideation, alcohol use, and conduct disorder problems.  

The people who’d eventually get cosmetic surgery, were already worse than other folks. But what happens after you get it? 

Well, the answer is that all those negative measures actually get worse. So the surgery is not actually helping them at all. In fact, it is decreasing their happiness levels.

Does beauty really make us happy? Do these changes in beauty, that people pay for, make us happy? Does losing weight, changing our hair, getting our nails done, etc., make us happy?

The answer seems to be no, in fact, these extreme changes in our looks actually reduces our well being. These things that people spend all this money on not actually making them happy.

Final Thoughts

As I read through the blog post one last time, I can’t help but think of arguments people may have against this information. For example, I get eyelash extensions and I absolutely love them. Someone who does not know me and reads this post and then sees that I have eyelash extensions may think I am a fraud.

But I know my eyelashes don’t make me happy. I know happiness is an inside project. But I do know that my eyelashes allow me several positive things:

  • Time and money spent on myself, things I am bad at doing. In a way I find it to be like practicing self-care
  • It is a 1-2 hour pause every 2 weeks, where I can just lay on the table and relax, nap, or vent to my lash lady
  • It shortens my morning routine
  • They give me a confidence boost

Many of you could argue the same thing for self-care routines you do for yourself. Or for the new laptop you bought. The new car you want. Or the botox you want for your laugh lines. Just know and recognize that these things are making your life easier, bringing pops of joy, demonstrating your hard work and hard earned money.

And remember that at the end of the day, these things don’t’ make you happy. Your partner is not in charge of your happiness levels.

You are! How fun and freeing is it to know that?

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