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5 Myths of Happiness Debunked – by Oliver Burkeman

By Jeri Denniston, Denner Group International, November 11, 2013

Takeaways: Happiness comes from knowing yourself, creating balance in your life, and being true to who you are. Avoiding negative thinking, trying to be positive all the time, and constantly pursuing ambitious goals at the expense of everything and everyone else can cause stress.

An article in the November issue of Fast Company by Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, triggered some thoughts.  In his article, Burkeman debunks the 5 myths of happiness:

  1. The importance of maintaining a positive mindset
  2. Relentlessly pursuing ambitious goals as the key to success
  3. The best managers make work fun
  4. Higher self-esteem equals greater happiness
  5. Pessimist should be avoided at all costs

Let’s look at these individually.

  1. Maintaining a positive mindset is crucial to happiness– or so the self-help books and gurus tell us. However, according to Burkeman, this isn’t our true reality. The mind wanders in many directions and trying to constantly channel it into only positive thoughts creates stress. Burkeman cites the example of someone who has suffered loss. Trying not to feel the grief, anger and pain only delays the healing process. Those of us who practice change management know that whenever any change occurs, you have to go through all the different levels of emotion from anger and denial to acceptance and finally hope and re-adjustment in order to heal and accept the change. Trying not to go through those stages, only delays the healing process. So maintaining a positive outlook, or telling someone to focus on the positive aspects of the loss or change and deny one’s feelings of anger, pain and betrayal, is not a healthy way to help someone through the loss that the change created.

  2. Relentlessly pursuing ambitious goals. We’re told that setting ambitious goals and keeping them at the forefront of our minds and work will help us succeed in life and work. While this is true, we also need to have “balance” in our lives. Pursuing those goals to the detriment of all else may help you achieve them – but at what cost to family, friends, and your health? Thus, pursuing ambitious goals without maintaining a healthy balance of family relationships, spiritual involvement, and health will not create happiness.

  3. The best managers make work fun. Well, we’ve probably all known someone who always was upbeat and energetic in their daily work. At some point you stop and ask “will the real (add name here) please stand up?!?” It’s impossible for someone to be “on” all the time with no downtime. It’s not natural to never be mad or unhappy.  And it actually drains energy from the rest of the staff who feel they have to reciprocate with a “fun” attitude even when they don’t feel it. According to Burkeman, a recent study by ScienceNordic indicates that people appreciate fairness over any other factor.

  4. Higher self-esteem leads to greater happiness. Holding yourself to a certain performance level creates a huge amount of stress – once you’ve achieved that the only option is to continue at that level or do better. Anything less is unacceptable. This doesn’t lead to happiness but rather creates everyday stress because you can never be satisfied with incremental small accomplishments, especially if they don’t measure up to the one “big” monumental accomplishment you think you should be achieving. Where is the happiness factor in that? According to Burkeman, if you have this attitude, then “your everyday failures — the things that go wrong for everyone, every so often–become far more consequential”.

  5. Avoid pessimists at all costs. Ok, I’ve been guilty of this one by trying to avoid the news (always negative) and people who constantly harp on all the bad things happening in their lives. The only way to do this is to live in a private cocoon or bubble, never interacting with others. And that’s not healthy nor does it build happiness.  In reality, looking at the potential downside is also healthy. As Burkeman says in his article, “Instead of asking how likely some venture is to succeed, ask whether you could tolerate the consequences if it failed. That way, you’ll take the interestingly risky steps while avoiding the stupidly risky ones.” That’s a healthy way to deal with negative outcomes. Another is the way W-40 approaches failure – by looking at them as learning moments and not failures. No one is to blame and everyone learns from the experience.

The moral to this story is that the key to happiness is multi-focused: understanding yourself and what gets your juices flowing; giving yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them; knowing your strengths and accepting your own limitations; striving to live a balanced life; pursuing goals that make you stretch, and accepting that they may not be achieved exactly as you imagined them – and that’s ok. If you can do these, then you have a better chance of living a happy, fulfilled life no matter what your circumstances.

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