For the New Year, Happiness or Positivity?

New social science research suggests that a positive outlook is more sustainable and authentic than a relentless pursuit of happiness.

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Posted in , Dec 20, 2021

Positive outlook

“Forget your troubles, come on, get happy…” goes the famous song. The pursuit of happiness occupies the American spirit—in songs, greeting cards, even in the Declaration of Independence.

But what happens when we actually are happy? Do we continue to “pursue” a perpetual increase of joy, health, wealth and all the other things that make us feel good? A new study published in the journal Emotion suggests that over-emphasizing happiness can, ironically, negatively impact our overall sense of joy and well-being.

“Valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed,” the authors wrote. This makes sense to anyone living authentically in the messy and complex world we occupy. Happiness is a goal, to be sure. But it can’t be the bar we set for every moment of every day. If we stand on tippy toes reaching for the emotional pinnacle most people define as “happiness,” we run the risk of losing our balance.

We can’t and shouldn’t turn our backs on joy, however. And that’s where positivity—authentic positivity—comes in. A 2020 study compared people who said they valued happiness even when they were already feeling happy with people who prioritized positivity by, for example, intentionally focusing on gratitude and positive emotions.

The findings revealed that those who chased happiness often felt like they were letting themselves down when they encountered so-called “negative” emotions or experiences. By contrast, those who had a positive outlook expected the full range of emotions to be part of their daily lives, including challenges and struggles alongside the triumphs and contentment.

The work of a positive lifestyle is to develop the skills you need to notice the good things around you—even if they sometimes feel small and hidden. It’s to trust your ability to tap into courage, resilience and kindness to encourage yourself and those around you in a positive, healthy direction. This is the work of a lifetime, and it is something you can bring with you to any situation you encounter, from the scary to the sublime.

As you ponder your hopes for the new year, do you think it’s helpful to distinguish between “happiness” and “positivity?”

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