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Baby Boomers Need to Stop Making Happiness the Goal
Studies show that baby boomers consistently report the lowest levels of happiness and have surprisingly high rates of depression.
I write a blog on the premise that these studies describing Baby Boomers as a generation in doom and gloom need not be self-fulfilling prophecies. Rather than let these studies of happiness in the 50s and 60s discourage us, I focus on ways to find happiness in these sometimes difficult years.
But can you really try hard to be happy? Should you make happiness a goal? Do you feel that the more you strive for happiness, the more it eludes you? Is the media making you feel happy?
These may seem strange questions coming from a blogger who writes about finding your happiness.
However, a recent study found that those who made happiness a goal had 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction with life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms.
Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed lately that happiness isn’t as trendy as it used to be. A few years ago, the science of happiness made the covers of Time and Oprah magazines. Happiness articles and quotes fill the internet. Striving for happiness spawned life coaches, motivational speakers, psychotherapists – and yes, happiness blogs like mine.
But are you tired of pretending to be happy all the time? Are you sick of the media telling you to be positive no matter what happens in your life?
Jimmy Holland, MD, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, coined the phrase “the tyranny of positive thinking.”
Sometimes it can feel like baby boomers are being bullied into thinking that if we don’t immediately wake up every morning with a permanent smile on our face – there’s something wrong with us.
Social media didn’t help. Describing some of the trials I’ve faced over the years, a friend told me, “I never would have guessed. You look so happy in your Facebook pictures.” Yes, I think I’ve fallen into the trap of just posting photos that look like I’m having the time of my life – all the time. Of course, I’m not, but that’s the fantasy world we all live in with social media.
Commerce makes us feel that happiness is a right. An instant feeling on tap that can be bought with that new sports car or new pair of shoes.
The truth is that everyone has problems. No one is happy all the time. It’s like this quote from Regina Brett: “If we all threw our problems in a pile and looked at everyone else’s problems, we’d get our problems back.”
The fact is, most people are worse off than you, despite posting a happy picture on Facebook. So maybe it’s time we Baby Boomers stop comparing our ‘happiness’ to others. Stop making “living happily ever after” some kind of prize that we all want to achieve.
Negative emotions are normal at times
I was reading an interesting article on Spike called The Fallacy of Happiness. The article points to a study by health insurer Aviva, which found that a quarter of adults in the UK suffer from stress, anxiety or depression and do not seek help because they feel ashamed of their “mental health condition”.
Columnist Patrick West writes, “How strange that such common, eternal human emotions as stress, anxiety and depression are now relegated to the category of mental-health problems.” “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression that leaves people unable to get out of bed for days on end: these are conditions that properly fall into the category of mental illness.”
He has a point. West says it’s natural to worry or feel low from time to time. These are normal human emotions that have somehow become pathologized.
Suddenly, negative emotions are treated as some kind of disease or disorder—something that must be cured immediately. This is evident with all the assortment of “happy pills” by the pharmaceutical industry like PEZ candy. I mean, how did our parents and grandparents survive without prescriptions like Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac, Valium and Ambien?
You are good just the way you are
The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, published a study on 700,000 women in midlife, which showed that there may not be a link between happiness and health, as other past studies have suggested.
Even more interesting than the results were the public reactions, disgruntled people jumping for joy because they no longer had to bear being told their bad attitude was putting their health at risk. Others are irritated that all their efforts to be happy may not result in good health and longevity as they thought.
But here’s the thing. The happiness we all hope for is not normal. Life can be a struggle at times, full of disappointments, failures and challenges.
Many people who make happiness their goal try to avoid the uncomfortable negative emotions that come with life’s normal ups and downs. We cannot 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 heart-wrenching moments when it’s impossible not to be Pollyanna. For example, a few years ago I did not jump for joy when I saw my mother suffering from a terrible disease. When I first started writing, I was not happy when my mailbox was filled with stacks of rejection letters. Or happy when people who love me betray me. You must carry me.
Should we still try to maintain a positive attitude? Of course. Will we always achieve it? No.
Iris Moss’ groundbreaking work supports the idea that striving for happiness can actually do more harm than good. “When people want to be happy, they set high standards that they are likely to fall short of,” she said. “This, in turn, can lead to greater levels of dissatisfaction, which in turn can lower levels of happiness and well-being.”
Moss explains, she’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 notes. This leads to an exaggerated focus on happiness which can have negative sides.
No matter where you fall on the happiness spectrum — which is partly due to your genes — self-acceptance is key.
Let’s face it, I’ll never be all smiles and giggles, but that’s okay. If you’re like me, a little on the serious side, you may find comfort in studies that show too much complacency can make you stupid, selfish, and less successful. In fact a little sadness can motivate us to make necessary changes in life.
Happiness should not be the goal
“Happiness is not the goal…it is the by-product of a life well lived,” Eleanor Roosevelt famously said.
So, let’s all leave happiness as a goal. Aim for fulfillment instead. Try for satisfaction. Set your sights on inspiration and adventure. Find purpose and meaning in life.
If you baby boomers make them your goals, you’re more likely to experience the joy and happiness you seek without even trying.
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