5 Common Happiness Mistakes This Emotional Life - PBS

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Happiness / Blog

 Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin's Bio

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project.

5 Common Happiness Mistakes


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Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 happiness boosters that actually do more harm than good.

Everyone has a few tricks for beating the blues – things you do when you’re feeling down to try to boost your mood. I've found out from long experience, however, that several of the most popular strategies don’t actually work very well in the long term. Beware if you're tempted to try any of the following:

1. Comforting yourself with a “treat.” Often, the things we choose as “treats” aren’t good for us. (That's why they're treats! We usually restrain ourselves!) The pleasure lasts a minute, but then feelings of guilt, loss of control, and other negative consequences just deepen the lousiness of the day. So when you find yourself thinking, “I’ll feel better after I have a few more beers…a pint of ice cream…a cigarette…a new pair of jeans,” ask yourself – will it REALLY make you feel better? It might make you feel worse. In particular, beware of…

2. Letting yourself off the hook. When I'm feeling down, I feel tempted to let myself off the hook, to think, “I’ll allow myself to skip the gym today, I need a break.” In fact, sticking to a resolution does more to boost my sense of self-esteem and self-control. (Plus, exercise itself boosts my happiness.) So NOT letting yourself off the hook might do more to boost your happiness. At the end of a bad day, you can say, "Well, at least I went to the gym/finished that horrible report/took my dog to the dog park."

3. Retreating to your sofa. Studies show that extroverts and introverts alike get a mood boost from connecting with other people. Although it can be tempting to isolate yourself when you’re feeling blue, you’re better off making plans with friends or family.

4. Expressing your negative emotions. Many people believe in the “catharsis hypothesis” and think that expressing anger by yelling, throwing things, punching pillows, slamming doors, cursing, etc. is healthy-minded and relieves their feelings. Not so. Studies show that aggressively expressing anger only aggravates it; as Plutarch observed, “Anger, while in its beginning, often can be ended by silence, or neglect.” I’ve certainly found this to be true; once I start yelling, I can whip myself into a fury. There are situations, of course, when my anger is a sign of a real problem that needs attention; I find that making sure that I express myself calmly means that I feel less riled up -- and, added bonus, that approach also elicits a better response from others.

5. Staying in your pajamas all day. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned in my happiness research is that although we think that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act. As improbable as this sounds, it really works. Sometimes it can be fun to hang out in your sweats all day, but if you’re feeling lethargic, powerless, or directionless, not getting dressed may make you feel worse. Put on your clothes so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you’re at it, make your bed.