Baby boomers need to stop making happiness the goal
Studies show that the youngest baby boomers consistently report the lowest levels of happiness with surprisingly high rates of depression.
I write a blog based on the premise that these studies that describe baby boomers as the generation that lives in pessimism do not have to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Rather than let these studies of happiness cause us to lose hope during the ’50s and ’60s, I focus on the ways we can find happiness during these sometimes difficult years.
But can you try too hard to be happy? Should you make happiness a goal? Do you feel that the more you strive for happiness, the more it seems to elude you? Does the media make you feel like happiness is like a button you push for instant happiness?
These may sound like strange questions coming from a blogger writing about finding happiness.
However, a recent study showed that those who made happiness a goal reported 50 percent fewer frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less life satisfaction, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms.
Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed that lately happiness is not as fashionable as it used to be. A few years ago, the science of happiness made the covers of Time and Oprah magazines. Happiness articles and quotes saturated the Internet. The fight for happiness spawned an entire industry of life coaches, motivational speakers, psychotherapists, and yes, happiness blogs like mine.
But are you getting tired of pretending to be happy all the time? Are you sick of the media telling us to have a positive attitude no matter what’s going on in your life?
Jimmie Holland, MD, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, coined the term “the tyranny of positive thinking.”
Sometimes it can feel like baby boomers are being bullied into thinking that if we don’t wake up every morning with an instant perpetual smile on our face, something is wrong with us.
Social media hasn’t helped. When I described some of the trials I faced in recent years, a friend told me, “I never would have guessed. You look so happy in your Facebook photos.” Yeah, I guess I’ve fallen into that trap by only posting photos that look like they’re having the time of my life, all the time. Of course not, but this is the fictional world we all live in with social media.
Commercials also make us feel that happiness is a right. An instant sensation on tap that can be bought with that new sports car or a new pair of shoes.
The truth is that everyone has problems. Nobody is happy all the time. It’s like that Regina Brett quote: “If we all stacked up our problems and looked at each other’s, we’d get our own back.”
The fact is, most people have a worse time than you do despite the happy picture they’re painting on Facebook. So maybe it’s time we baby boomers stopped comparing our ‘happiness’ to everyone else’s. Stop making “happily ever after” some kind of prize we all want to achieve.
NEGATIVE EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL SOMETIMES
I was reading an interesting article, The Happiness Fallacy, about Spike. The article pointed to a study by health insurer Aviva, which showed that a quarter of adults in the UK suffer from stress, anxiety or depression and do not seek help because they feel ashamed about their “mental health conditions”.
“How strange it is that such normal and timeless human emotions as stress, anxiety, and depression are now lumped into the category of mental health problems,” writes columnist Patrick West. “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression that leaves people unable to get out of bed for days — these are conditions that properly fall into the category of mental illness.”
He has a point. West maintains that it is natural to worry or feel depressed from time to time. These are normal human emotions that have somehow been pathologized.
Suddenly, negative feelings are seen as some kind of disease or aberration, something that needs to be cured immediately. That has become obvious with all the variety of “happy pills” that the pharmaceutical industry doles out like PEZ Candy. I mean, how did our parents and grandparents survive without prescriptions like Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac, Valium, and Ambien?
YOU ARE FINE AS YOU ARE
The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, published a study on 700,000 middle-aged women showing that there may not be a link between happiness and health as other studies in the past have claimed.
Even more interesting than the results were people’s reactions, Grumpy people jumping for joy as they no longer had to put up with claims that their bad attitude was endangering their health. Others were irritated to discover that all their efforts to be happier might not result in good health and longer life as they thought.
But here’s the thing. The giddy kind of happiness we all expect is not the norm. Life can be a struggle at times, full of disappointments, failures, and challenges.
Many people who make happiness their goal are trying to avoid the uncomfortable negative feelings that come with the normal ups and downs of life. We can not be happy all the time. Baby boomers are old and wise enough to know that happiness can be fleeting and fickle.
Everyone has those heartbreaking moments when it’s impossible to be a Pollyanna. For example, a couple of years ago I was not jumping for joy to see my mom die after suffering from a horrible disease. When I started writing, I wasn’t exactly elated when stacks of rejection letters filled my mailbox. Or ecstatic when the people I loved betrayed me. You understand me.
Should we keep trying to aim for a positive attitude? Definitely. Will we always get it? Do not.
The groundbreaking work of Iris Mauss supported the idea that striving for happiness may actually cause more harm than good. “When people want to be happy, they set higher standards by which they are more likely to fall short,” she said. “This, in turn, can lead to increased discontent and, in turn, lower levels of happiness and well-being.”
Mauss explained that he is not saying, ‘Don’t try to be happy.’ If you give people the right tools, they can increase their happiness and well-being, she says. It’s an exaggerated focus on happiness that can have drawbacks.
No matter where you are on the happiness spectrum, which is partly down to your genes, self-acceptance is key.
Let’s face it, I’m never going to be giddy and giggly, but that’s okay. If you are like me, a little serious, you can take comfort in studies that show too much joy and can make you gullible, selfish and less successful. A little bit of unhappiness, in fact, can inspire us to make the necessary changes in life.
HAPPINESS SHOULD NOT BE A GOAL
“Happiness is not a goal…it is a byproduct of a life well lived,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.
So, let’s put aside happiness as a goal. Aim for fulfillment instead. Strive for satisfaction. Set your sights on inspiration and adventure. Search for purpose and meaning in life.
If you baby boomers make those your goals, you’re more likely to feel the joy and happiness you’ve been searching for all along without even trying.