Americans spend nearly $11 billion in hot pursuit of happiness. By rights, they really should be the happiest people on the planet. But in reality, almost the complete opposite is true. International comparisons consistently show that people in the United States are some of the least happy (the United States is 19th among OECD countries, down from third in 2007), most stressed, and anxious people in the developed world.
So what is going wrong? I spent the last few years trying to get to the bottom of this strange paradox while researching my book, America the Anxious, Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real. Here’s some of the key things I learned about how to get off the happiness-seeking treadmill and find genuine contentment:
1. Invest in your personal relationships.
In an individualistic culture, we have come to see happiness as a personal journey that involves diving deep to really know ourselves and be ourselves. But surprisingly, a wide body of research shows that the single biggest factor affecting our happiness is the strength of our social connections and relationships with other people. While self-reflection has its place and is an essential component to said connections, it's just as important to invest time in our relationships and communities.
2. Prioritize friendships, community, and joy.
Strong friendships are one of the biggest factors in both our happiness and our health. "Low social connection," as researchers call it, is roughly as dangerous to our health as smoking and carries a risk of premature death around twice that of obesity. Yet in a busy life, with pressure from work and kids and chores, it is easy to let socializing and keeping up with friendships fall right to the bottom of our priority lists. Make plans with friends and stick to them, even when you are feeling tired. Be there for your friends in times of need. Call them for a chat. Make them a priority. Get involved in your wider community, too—whether through a hobby, volunteering, or political activism. Social connection also comes from feeling part of something bigger than ourselves and looking beyond our immediate networks.
3. Don't force positive thinking.
American culture values positivity and the appearance of near-constant perkiness highly. But studies show that pressure to be positive at all times and denying negative emotions can lead to anxiety and actually make us less happy. For instance, when one group of people in a study was given positive affirmations to repeat to themselves to buoy themselves, they ended up having more negative thoughts and self-doubt than another group encouraged to think more realistically. In order to be psychologically healthy, we need to embrace the full range of human emotion.
4. Take a break from social media.
Too much time on social media looking at other people's curated life highlights can lead to a deeply skewed view of the reality of other people's lives. If your social media feed makes it seem as if everyone you know is always at a wonderful party (you feel uninvited), hanging out with their adoring partner (you feel resentment toward your own), and unfeasibly cute and well-behaved kids (you feel like a failure) sipping artisanal cappuccinos in an Alpine snowscape (you feel so under-traveled) somewhere, take a break. Check back into your own life, and remember that people are posting their highlights on Instagram. No one's life is glamorous 100 percent of the time.
5. End the self-blame cycle.
Popular slogans and memes such as "Happiness is a choice" or "Think positive" can be inspiring, but they can also leave us with the nagging feeling that if we aren’t happy, we simply aren’t trying hard enough, or it is somehow our own fault. We have far less control over our own emotions than we'd like to believe, and self-blame is the enemy of contentment.
6. Focus on the journey (not happiness).
Research shows that the more people fixate on happiness and see it as an explicit end goal, the more likely they are to be anxious, unhappy, and even to feel lonely and depressed. Instead of chasing happiness as an end in itself, focus on living a connected and meaningful life, and let happiness follow as a by-product.
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.