There are two counterintuitive lessons about happiness that, if you get them, will help you to understand in an experiential way what real happiness is. Each of these lessons has implications at a policy level. Let’s look at them:
Fact One: Truly happy people are not always happy.
To experience real happy, you have to feel your downs as well as your ups. This means that by allowing yourself to move through all your difficult feelings, you are taking care of your happiness and well-being.
A stiff upper lip means that while you do not express or fully feel your difficult emotions, you end up not fully feeling as hopeful, optimistic, relaxed or happy as you could. Brene Brown does a good job of explaining the balancing act of positive and negative emotions in her TED talk on vulnerability. When we stuff our feelings down, they come out sideways and we end up doing things we would not normally allow ourselves to do, like exploding at someone in our care. Feelings repressed for too long can lead to depression; feeling cut off from the world or a pervasive dullness.
The not being happy lesson
Allow yourself to feel and express your difficult emotions. Do this in a safe way — it is not okay to yell at people because you are angry, but it might be okay to go yell in a private space, punch pillows or write down all your anger until you can talk calmly about your feelings. Dr. Bliss, a director on the board of the Happiness Alliance, devised a process for safely feeling difficult feelings: feel, express, consider, act.
What not being happy means for policy makers
Richard Layard stressed the importance of mental health services in his contribution to the World Happiness Report for 2013. Everybody suffers loss and hardship in life, and not everybody has the resilience or resources to bounce fully back. Up to 80% of people suffering from depression never get the care they need. We expect to go to the doctor for an annual physical health check up, but more often than not ignore our mental health.
Removal of the stigma for mental health care, particularly for young people and men of all ages, combined with ready access for mental health services is a policy that would increase happiness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published a handbook “Developing a Stigma Reduction Initiative” for local governments, and New York City launched a program to increase mental health care that other cities can build on.
Fact two: You can be too happy.
It is possible to actually be too happy — not to be someone who forces themselves to be happy (and hides all their sadness) but to actually be too happy. People who are indiscriminately happy may lack compassion for others and lose the ability for self-reflection. They lose their creative juices, and may become slackers. A little bit of unhappiness can spur a person towards self-improvement in their community, in the workplace and in learning.
The lesson in being too happy
If you define happy as always being up, positive, smiley and optimistic, rethink happiness. Maybe even use a different word. Think of happiness as the fulfillment your true potential, as in self-actualizing. In this way, happiness is ever and always unfolding, as we live and grow along the many “lines of development,” or dimensions, that define us as human.
This lesson carries over to policy, where happiness may be better defined as well-being, thriving or resilience. Besides the issue of terms, there are implications for policy makers in this lesson.
What being too happy means for policy makers
Bruno Frey, one of the first to research the connections between happiness and public policy gives a few lessons to policy makers about happiness:
- Educate people about what brings lasting happiness. For example, involvement in the democratic process and spending time with family and friends are choices that may not give immediate gratification but a yield longer term sense of wellbeing. The connection between getting involved in the democratic process and happiness is important information to disseminate for the next steps.
- Use happiness and wellbeing surveys to measure happiness and wellbeing. In this way, also expand the definition of happiness and well-being to include the domains of happiness (environment, economy, society…) Get as many people as possible involved in the process (see above, participating in the democratic process).
- Use happiness and well-being survey data alongside economic data to determine policy.
Written by Laura Musikanski, Happiness Alliance.