The Science Behind 5 Classic Happiness Clichés

Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or crochet them: most inspirational quotes make us roll our eyes, but if you dig into them, they can offer true wisdom. To celebrate 200 episodes of Savvy Psychologist, here's a much-needed makeover to 5 pieces of classic happiness advice. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #200

Happiness Cliché #3: “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

What the cliché really means: Organize your life so you don’t have to exert discipline.

Discipline, better known as self-control, is a topic hotter than a jalapeño with a fever. 

Self-control, defined as resisting temptation in the moment, is important. It’s hard to be happy if you get sidetracked by every shiny object in your field of vision. 

However, there is much disagreement about the nature of self-control. Some say it’s a finite resource to be conserved, while others say it’s like a muscle, strengthening the more you use it.

But as a hot-off-the-presses study shows, the thinking has evolved. The study, by two Canadian researchers, followed 159 college students and found that resisting temptation had nothing to do with success. Instead, simply experiencing temptation, whether or not they resisted, left the students feeling depleted and less likely to reach their goals. It wasn’t about self-control at all—it was more how they organized their environment.

So how to apply this? Practice the counterintuitive practice of “effortless self-control.” Organize your work and life to minimize temptation. Use an app to keep you offline while you’re working. Put your phone in a drawer while you do your homework. If you want to stick to your diet, don’t go to McDonalds and try to piece together a healthy meal. Just go somewhere where the entire menu is healthy.

No matter how you phrase it—do one thing every day that scares you, get out of your comfort zone, just do it—follow the advice and avoid avoidance.

Happiness Cliché #4: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

What the cliché really means: Avoid avoidance.

Avoidance feeds pretty much every mental health challenge there is. Avoiding the things that make us feel nervous, incompetent, awkward, or dumb keeps us safely in our comfort zone, but also keeps us from learning that we’re more capable than we ever imagined, and that the world isn’t as dangerous or unfriendly as we thought. All in all, it ties right back to the first truism we talked about: it’s okay to feel life’s ups and downs. 

So no matter how you phrase it—do one thing every day that scares you, get out of your comfort zone, just do it—follow the advice and avoid avoidance. 

Happiness Cliché #5: “Live every day as if it were your last.”

What the cliché really means: Imagine time is scarce.

Advice on seizing the day spans the centuries, from “carpe diem” to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” to YOLO. How to do this? Think of time as finite. This is the one place an abundance mindset backfires. Counterintuitively, to increase happiness, aim for scarcity.

For example, one study randomly assigned college seniors in their last semester to write about their college experience for 10 minutes. One half was prompted by the phrase, “keep in mind that you only have a short amount of time left...about 1,200 hours.” The other half was prompted by the phrase “keep in mind that you have a significant amount of time left...about 1/10th of a year.”

Over the next two weeks, the researchers followed up multiple times, always asking how often the students had spent time with friends, hung out in the quad, went to a favorite campus restaurant or bar, took a scenic route around campus, or otherwise took part in college-related fun or nostalgia. 

Turns out those in the time-is-scarce group did more of the activities and reported being happier than the time-is-plentiful group.

Plus, a time-is-scarce mindset doesn’t just work for college kids. A 2018 study randomly assigned participants to pretend it was their last month in their current city or to live as they usually did. The result? Those in the pretending-to-move-in-a-month group reported doing more and feeling greater connectedness and well-being. Turns out simply imagining you have to seize the month leads to seizing the day.

A final note: whether this is your first episode or you’ve listened to all 200, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are amazing, caring, and thoughtful, and I’m honored that you take the time to listen to the show. You are the reason the show has come this far.


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For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.

Image of head with cliche happiness quote © Shutterstock

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