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 describing baby boomers as the generation living in doom and gloom don’t have to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Rather than let these happiness studies make us lose hope during the 1950s and 1960s, 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 like the more you fight 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 might sound like strange questions coming from a blogger who writes 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.

Perhaps that is why I have noticed that lately happiness is not as fashionable as before. A few years ago, the science of happiness graced 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 is going on in your life?

Jimmie Holland, MD, a psychiatrist at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, coined the term “the tyranny of positive thinking.”

Sometimes it can seem 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 networks have not helped. When I described some of the trials I’ve 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 posting only photos that look like I’m 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 piled up our problems and saw each other’s, we’d get ours 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 “live happily ever after” some kind of prize that we all want to achieve.

NEGATIVE EMOTIONS ARE NORMAL SOMETIMES

I was reading an interesting article, The Fallacy of Happiness, 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 eternal human emotions such as stress, anxiety and depression are now included in 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 argues that it’s natural to worry or feel down from time to time. These are normal human emotions that have somehow become 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 JUST THE WAY YOU ARE

The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, published a study on 700,000 women in their midlife showing that there might not be a link between happiness and health as other studies have claimed in the past.

Even more interesting than the results were people’s reactions, the Grumpy people were jumping for joy as they no longer had to put up with claims that their bad attitude was endangering their health. Others chafed to discover that all their efforts to be happier might not result in as good health and longer life as they thought.

But here’s the thing. The giddy kind of happiness we all hope for is not the norm. Life can be a struggle at times, filled with 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. We baby boomers are old and wise enough to know that happiness can be fleeting and fickle.

Everyone has those heartbreaking moments where it’s impossible to be a Pollyanna. For example, a couple of years ago I was not jumping for joy when I saw my mom die after suffering from a horrible disease. When I started writing, I wasn’t exactly elated when piles of rejection letters filled my mailbox. Or ecstatic when the people I loved betrayed me. You understand me.

Should we keep trying to aspire to a positive attitude? Definitely. Will we always get it? Not.

The groundbreaking work of Iris Mauss supported the idea that striving for happiness can actually do 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 further discontent and, in turn, lower levels of happiness and well-being.”

Mauss explained that he’s not saying, ‘Don’t try to be happy.’ If you give people the right tools, they can increase their happiness and well-being, she points out. It’s an exaggerated focus on happiness that can have drawbacks.

No matter where you are on the happiness spectrum, which is partly due 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’re like me, a bit serious, you may take comfort in studies that show that too much joy 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 happiness aside 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 looking for all along without even trying.

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