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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. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #200

the science behind happiness cliches

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We all roll our eyes at happiness clichés: “Live, laugh, love.” “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Even if there’s some truth in inspirational sayings, anything you’ve ever seen crocheted on a pillow or framed on Michael Scott’s wall is automatically suspect.

This week, to celebrate the 200th episode of Savvy Psychologist, we’ll look at the science behind 5 happiness clichés and find new, fresh ways to put them into action. In other words, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Hey, wouldn’t that look good on a pillow?

5 Classic Happiness Clichés

  1. “Don’t worry, be happy.”
  2. “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”
  3. “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
  4. “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
  5. “Live every day as if it were your last.”

Let's explore the science behind each happiness cliché.

Happiness Cliché #1: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

What the cliché really means: It’s okay to feel life’s ups and downs.

The happiness and positive psychology movements, while revolutionary, have had one major negative side effect: an expectation that we are happy all the time. 

Over the last few years, I’ve seen an upsurge in young adults who come to therapy mistaking the downs and struggle of everyday life as a sign of something gone seriously wrong. Multiple young people have needed my assurance that it’s normal to feel sad after a breakup, fine to be anxious at exam time, or okay to feel unsure during a big transition. They worry that feeling anything less than happy, motivated, and radiating confidence isn’t good enough.

Therefore, instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” let’s update the saying to include normal emotional variation. Indeed, it’s okay to feel incompetent, especially when you’re pushing yourself to learn something new. It’s totally normal to feel anxious when you don’t have a ton of experience doing something. It’s important to feel bored occasionally—the best ideas are born when our minds aren’t otherwise occupied with Netflix, YouTube, or even, dare I say, podcasts.

Let’s take it even further: if we’re willing to frontload feeling lousy, we set ourselves up for true happiness. What do I mean? A 2018 study found that the activities that make us happiest—those that allow us to enter a flow state—are often inconvenient and suck up a lot of bandwidth. 

A huge study of nearly 100,000 people across 94 countries found that people who believe their lives have meaning or purpose, regardless of how they feel about their income, are happier with their life.

It’s true: it’s a hassle to work up the energy to dive into an intense, focused activity like making art, training for a sport, or writing a story. It can be daunting to work on your standup comedy act or sit down at the piano to master that tricky section of Rhapsody in Blue. But flow—and many other activities that make us truly happy—require an investment of energy and hassle at the get-go.

So think of negative emotion as an investment. You don’t have to throw out your Hakuna Matata mug, but see the ups and downs of daily life as part of a normal, healthy rhythm. 

Happiness Cliché #2: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

What the cliché really means: Find your purpose to fight stress and take care of yourself.

About a kazillion studies, as well as common sense, have concluded that having a purpose increases both quality and quantity of life. What exactly is purpose? Well, like jazz or porn, you know it when you see it. For our purposes (ha-ha), we’ll define it as feeling directed and motivated by your goals and values. Why is this so important? There are a couple of theories. 

One is that having a purpose may prompt you to take better care of yourself. Taking care of yourself implies that you and what you’re doing with your life are worth taking care of.

Beyond that, it’s thought that purpose shields us from the weathering effects of stress. For example, one study found that when students reported their lives weren’t meaningful, the hassles of everyday life were coupled with symptoms of depression. But when students reported higher meaning and purpose, the link between daily hassles and depression weakened. The conclusion? Purpose buffers us from stress.

Regardless of how exactly it works, we know that purpose is directly linked to happiness. 

A huge study of nearly 100,000 people across 94 countries found that people who believe their lives have meaning or purpose, regardless of how they feel about their income, are happier with their life.

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