What You Know About Happiness Is All Wrong
Happiness is often something we think we'll gain down the road once we accomplish X, Y, and Z: a dream job, the perfect partner, a bigger salary, a bigger house. Yet things like fame, goods, success, and validation are the stuff of which the old conception of happiness was made. According to this way of thinking, once we reach one goal, it's time to set another one that will for sure make us happy... yet it never really does. Society has told us that achieving our own personal success will make us happy, but that’s actually a lie, says Stephanie Harrison, founder and creator of The New Happy.
Stephanie developed The New Happy philosophy during her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a Master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology. What is The New Happy? It comes down to setting compassionate goals rather than self-image goals in which you are trying to win or maintain other people’s approval. We chatted with Stephanie about this new outlook on life that has garnered more than 400K fans of her colorful, data-driven IG.
Why does happiness seem out of reach for so many?
Stephanie: I was fascinated to discover that so many of our beliefs about happiness do not come from within, but from the world around us. These beliefs have a profound impact on our actions and perceptions.
At The New Happy, our philosophy sets up a paradigm distinguishing between ‘Old Happy,’ the definition of happiness that you have been taught by the world around you, and ‘New Happy,’ a new science-backed approach to happiness that not only helps you but helps the world.
I think one of the core problems is that many of us don’t even know that we have a definition of happiness, let alone what it is and how it is affecting us. If we have a completely unrealistic definition of happiness, as Old Happy does, then it will always feel out of reach. In Old Happy, happiness is always one achievement away – it’s always the next one that will finally make you good enough, and then you can stop, take a break, spend time with your loved ones, and be the person you want to be. Starting to notice this pattern in ourselves is a really important way to begin shifting our perspective.
How have we been misinformed about happiness? How is that harming people?
Stephanie: The core belief underpinning the Old Happy paradigm is that you are not good enough as you are, and to remedy this, you must go out and achieve something in the world to become worthy. This belief creates tremendous pain. Feeling like we are only conditionally worthy puts us in a state of constant self-evaluation, judging how we are doing and how close we are to ‘enough’ – an exhausting experience that persistently drains our joy and vitality.
When I look at our collective well-being challenges, like burnout and loneliness, I see Old Happy all over it. We need to broaden our conversation about well-being and happiness to include societal influences, many of which have gone unacknowledged. If we have been taught by our world that happiness comes from achieving more, and that is reinforced by all of our systems, then we will prioritize individual success, and de-prioritize those critically important paths to happiness, like our connections, nature, and helping those in our community and the world around us.
My argument is that there is a far better way to find happiness: through being of service to the world using your authentic gifts. This is what I call your New Happy. To be happy, you need to feel useful. There are so many problems in our world that need help: they need your brain, your heart, your hands, your energy, your voice. There are people who are suffering, and they need exactly what you have to offer. In doing that, you will not only be able to help make our world a better place, but when you are expressing yourself authentically, you will also find purpose, feel frequent joy, and cultivate a stable, lasting sense of well-being. This approach to happiness is underpinned by a sense of compassion for all, a recognition that we are all connected and we need to care for the collective to be happy as individuals. It’s also hopeful: I believe that if we come together, we have what it takes to create a world where every person can experience happiness, just as they deserve.
Can you share some data points that support the New Happy philosophy?
Stephanie: One of the research topics supporting our philosophy is the idea of quieting your ego. This is the process of seeking a sustainable balance between yourself and others that leads to positive growth for all. It is related to personal outcomes like self-esteem and resilience, but also to the actions that you take in the world. Having a quiet ego is strongly connected to setting compassionate goals, which are goals where you are trying to contribute to other people’s well-being. These are contrasted with self-image goals, where you are trying to win or maintain other people’s approval – Old Happy goals. While self-image goals are associated with a decrease in self-esteem and connection, compassionate goals are associated with an increase in self-esteem and connection.
Another important element of our philosophy is the recognition of our interconnectedness. I think it’s really beautiful that the research shows this: When we care for others, we experience personal benefits; when we care for ourselves, we are inspired to and supported in caring for others. Giving increases your own positive emotions, sense of connectedness to others, and sense of meaning. Offering compassion toward others leads to sustainable increases in happiness. One recent study found that behaving in a more selfless way is associated with greater happiness.
Turning to the research on caring for yourself, we can see the benefits, too. Extending compassion toward yourself predicts a reduction in depression, anxiety and stress symptoms as well as an increase in well-being. One study found that practicing self-affirmation increases feelings of self-compassion, which in turn motivates giving behavior. Every time you care for yourself, you’re supporting your ability to be there for others; every time you care for others, you’re also caring for yourself. It’s all connected.
Are there people who are just born happier, or can you learn to be happier?
Stephanie: There’s some debate about this, but many scholars believe that we have a general ‘happiness set-point,’ which is your base natural level of natural happiness. It is helpful to think of it more like a range, where you can boost yourself up to the top of it based on your daily actions. What you do does matter.
Happiness can be thought of as more than just the emotion that you feel when things go right. It’s about living a happy life, an existence that is aligned with who you are and what matters most to you.
One powerful reframe here is thinking of happiness not as an outcome, which is an Old Happy perspective, but as an action. When you are living your life, being authentically yourself and sharing that self in a way that has a positive benefit upon others, you experience happiness as a byproduct.
What are ways in which we can experience more joy in our lives?
Stephanie: Creating joy in our lives is such a priority. It is an emotion that not only benefits our own well-being, but also contributes to our relationships, our capacity to help and support others, and our resilience. Here are a few strategies.
First, help someone around you. There’s a reason that being of service is at the heart of our philosophy! There are so many studies that show the power of giving: It not only affects our happiness but impacts our physical health, too. It can positively impact your blood pressure, reduce your stress, and even extend your longevity. Do something small right now: Send someone a thank you text, let a loved one know how special they are to you, do a random act of kindness, share your expertise with someone, donate or advocate for a cause that needs you, engage in a warm conversation with a stranger, ask someone how they are doing and really listen. In the longer term, think about how you can use your gifts – the authentic actions that bring you joy – and offer them up to contribute to the world’s collective happiness.
Second, slow down, and look for something beautiful in the world around you. We miss a lot of the good, important stuff because we’re so focused on what we need to do. Decide you are going to look for the good: a wonderful quality in a loved one, something in nature, a moment of kindness. Once you see it, allow yourself to savor it and really soak it in. If you can, tell someone else about it to leverage the additional benefits of social connection. When you share with someone, you are able to extend the moment of goodness beyond the event itself, a ripple effect of joy that touches you and your relationship in a meaningful way.
Third, get outside into the world if it’s accessible for you. Our feelings of loneliness and disconnection are likely to increase when we are stuck inside our homes, as so many of us have been. One study found that spending just twenty minutes in nature lowers cortisol, your stress hormone, up to 20 percent! Nature is also the most reliable place to experience a sense of awe, which can inspire giving and compassionate behavior.
Finally, make joy a shared pursuit. Decide with your family or roommates or friends that you are going to consciously ‘joy-ify’ a regular activity, like making dinner, doing chores, or a regular routine. Ask yourselves, what would make me feel more connected to this activity, this moment, or the people we are sharing it with? There are so many creative ways you might do this. In one of our New Happy Challenges where we taught the skill of joy, participants came up with all sorts of wonderful ideas, including cooking recipes from around the world, doing an end-of-workday dance party, and sharing a moment of gratitude as a family at the end of every day.
How can we support our friends when they're feeling down?
Stephanie: As a society, we’re not very comfortable with pain, suffering, grief, and the difficulties of being a human. There’s so much pressure to appear happy and like you have it all together. No one has it all together, and everyone is going through something, and I think that collectively pretending that this isn’t true is very harmful for all of us.
If someone trusts you enough to open up to you about their pain, this is a powerful opportunity to nurture your connection, share micro-moments of love, and support them. I developed an acronym to help you to be there in these moments: FANAL, which is an old word for a lighthouse or beacon. I love this metaphor because it gives us an idea for how we can be for others: firmly grounded within ourselves, sharing a light that shines upon them and guides them to a safe, secure place.
Here’s how to use it:
- F: Focus on the person. Give them your full attention and make this moment about them.
- A: Ask how they are feeling. If they brush you aside or give a standard answer, you might need to gently ask a second time or in a different way to make it clear you really want to know how they are.
- N: Notice their suffering. Many of us are afraid to look at pain, as though it is embarrassing or contagious. This leaves the person in pain feeling so lonely. Try to really see them and their pain.
- A: Acknowledge their experience. This pain might be the most palpable thing in their lives right now. Honor that reality. Don’t deny it or try to change their perception of it. Tell them that you see what they are going through, and how painful it is.
- L: Listen. Just keep listening, asking more questions to invite them to keep sharing. Stay with them until they are ready to change the topic.
This practice will help you to be there for them in a compassionate way.
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Theresa Gonzalez is a content creator based in San Francisco and the author of Sunday Sews. She's a lover of all things design and spends most of her days momming her little one Matilda.