A Few Myths of Happiness

a happy, excited woman

In a recent blog post I talked about the ABCs of happiness or the three core themes to live a happier life. Now I want to step back and talk about some of the myths of happiness. We have to understand what happiness is and also what it is not in order to live happier lives. So here are some common misconceptions.

You are happy or you are not

One myth of happiness is that you are happy or you are not—like you’re born with it or you’re not. And although there is a strong genetic component to happiness, which I discussed in a recent blog about what we learn from science, there is much that anyone can do to increase their happiness once we understand its nature and learn happiness strategies. It is not something we have or don’t have but something which we can influence and increase.

Seeking happiness is self-indulgent

It is a myth to believe that it is selfish or self-centered to pursue a goal of happiness. However, the social scientists who study happiness claim that increasing our happiness is not self-indulgent but fundamentally altruistic. People who are happy are not only more successful in their careers and personal lives, but also contribute positively to the wellbeing of others. Furthermore, according to Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage, people aren’t happy because they are successful. They are more likely to be successful because they are happy.

Happiness is feeling good all the time

The truth is that life has ups and downs. Hard things happen to everyone and it is simply unrealistic to think that we are immune to these events and that we can or should put on a happy face or remain upbeat at all times. We are human and will experience the gamut of emotions—happiness and sadness; excitement and disappointment; contentment and frustration; peace and guilt and so on. Happiness is not about avoiding the negative emotions of life. It is about allowing them, learning to process them, and knowing that they don’t have to affect other moments of pleasure and joy and the sense that my life, as a whole, is meaningful and worthwhile.

Happiness comes from pleasure

Don’t get me wrong. We need some degree of pleasure in order to be happy. The problem is that many people use pleasure-seeking as a substitute for genuine happiness. I’m talking about pursuing activities that distract us from boredom and even emotional pain and which create a temporary “high” but keep us from our deeper feelings and finding joy—activities like overeating, alcohol, drugs, shopping, social media, video games, watching tv all evening, or seeking unhealthy sex . Some of these activities are inherently self-destructive. Others are fine as long we do them consciously and recognize that they can become addictive and do not necessarily result in long-term happiness.

Happiness is doing/being the best

Another myth of happiness is that we can’t really be happy if we are not the best at whatever we are doing. For many people, it means they won’t even try something if they’re not going to be really good. Or it leaves others in a state of unhappiness if they don’t win or achieve at the top of their class or field. This way of living makes life hard. Everything is a performance and our worth gets all tied up in how well we are doing instead of enjoying the process of what we are doing. We don’t have to be the best at everything to be happy. Sometimes it is okay to simply be good enough.

Happiness is “out-there”

Another myth of happiness is that it is a function of what we have, do, or accomplish. It has to do with money, fame, status, popularity, talent, beauty, or power. We implicitly believe that pursuing these things, these externals, if you will, will make us happy. Furthermore, we’ve been socialized to believe that “more is better.” The more my wealth, fame, power, or accomplishments, the happier I’ll be.

Now I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with money, possessions, power, status, or seeking beauty. In fact, I believe it is healthy to set goals and go after our dreams. However, the problem is when we believe that such “externals” are the source of our happiness, well-being or even self-esteem that we find ourselves coming from a scarcity mentality in which whatever we have is never enough. We are always comparing. We see what is missing. And we find ourselves on a treadmill in which whatever we have/do/are, is never enough.

So, what is happiness?

So I’ve shared a few myths of happiness, what it is not. Let me offer my definition of happiness.

I think of it as an emotional state of contentment and well-being along with a sense that life is good, meaningful and worthwhile. Notice that I’m speaking about two dimensions. The first has to do with my feelings, my sense of contentment in this moment. The second has to do with an overall sense that my life is meaningful and worthwhile.

Although both are important, I believe that the sense that my life is meaningful and worthwhile is necessary to sustain happiness long-term. In fact, I like a quote I recently read from Jainism:

The person ignorant of what is really important craves a life of luxury and constantly seeks after pleasures. Haunted by his own desires he becomes numb to what is truly important and is rewarded only with suffering.” Acarangasutra 2.60

Happiness is not just about feeling good in the moment (the hedonistic life). It is about finding meaning by making choices consistent with what we believe to be important in the long run.

I hope to share, in upcoming blog posts, a lot of what science and the field of positive psychology as well as religion have to teach about happiness. In the meantime, I want to conclude by saying that people who are happy are not so because life has treated them better but because they practice good mental, emotional and spiritual strategies that lead to a sense that life is meaningful and worthwhile. The good news is that these strategies are available to all of us.



  1. Aubrey J. Tennant

    You nailed it Roger, I seem to be growing daily in a state of feeling good for no particular reason. At age 69 & 11/12ths –
    life overall has been good to me. Looking forward to more from you.

    • Roger Allen

      I’m happy for you, Aubrey. It is so great to hear that feeling good is growing in you. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Emily

    I love this! So true. I especially love the idea that we can experience sustained happiness if we believe that our lives have meaning and purpose, even through the ups and downs. Thanks for sharing!

    • Roger Allen

      Yes. I agree. I don’t think anything is more important than a strong sense of purpose to be happy long-term.


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