Should happiness be a New Year’s resolution? Here is what UAB experts have to say

Avoid getting caught in the “happiness trap” by following these tips from a UAB expert.  

Stream happiness trapAvoid getting caught in the “happiness trap” by following these tips from a UAB expert. Being happier is a popular New Year’s resolution. According to a recent survey, 17 percent of Americans reported that being happier was one of their goals for 2023. However, Megan Hays, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine, advises against making this a resolution.

“Unfortunately, many ‘negative’ emotions like sadness and anxiety have been demonized, with messages of toxic positivity abounding, including the ever-present idea of always staying positive,” said Hays, a clinical psychologist in the UAB Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “The truth is that making happiness your goal might actually make you less happy.”

Do not get caught in the “happiness trap”

“As Dr. Russ Harris details in his popular book titled ‘The Happiness Trap,’ we are not wired to be naturally happy all the time,” Hays said. “In fact, the psychological processes that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce often make us uncomfortable and unhappy in the modern world.”

The happiness trap refers to various false beliefs and myths humans have about happiness. Some beliefs of the happiness trap may look like the following:

  • I can only be happy if ____
  • If I am not happy, then something is wrong with me.
  • I should be happy all the time.
  • Everyone else is happier than I am.
  • I should be happy right now because ____ happened.
  • If I were truly happy, I would never feel sadness, depression, anxiety, etc.
  • I’ll be happy when I have 

Hays warns that myths about happiness create the blueprint for the happiness trap.   

Inside Megan McMurray 20190221 003 5159Megan Hays, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine. Photography: Andrea MabryPursuing happiness may make one less happy

Research has shown that, among Americans, pursuing happiness can impair one’s well-being over time.

“The misleading beliefs we have about happiness create a vicious cycle in which the more we try to find happiness, the more we suffer,” Hays said. “Research has demonstrated that those who set happiness as a goal tend to be less happy over time. And with all the pressure to be happy these days, it makes sense that people might feel they are ‘failing’ at life if they are not bursting with joy all the time and are feeling very normal emotions such as sadness, anger or anxiety.”

People often experience feelings of happiness during certain milestones in life, such as getting a promotion, graduating from school or getting married. But happiness should be thought of as a byproduct of doing something worthwhile, as opposed to a rather ambiguous and fleeting end goal.

Humans are not meant to be happy all the time

Hays says that emotions such as anger or sadness can sometimes be perceived as “bad” by others, and people are commonly inundated with messages about how “staying positive” is the only acceptable way to be.

“Feeling difficult emotions is actually quite healthy and crucial to our well-being,” Hays said. “No one is happy all of the time. Negative emotions can feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they often serve a purpose for us.”

Although negative emotions can sometimes feel uncomfortable, these feelings can act as a warning system for individuals, making them aware of areas in their lives that may need attention.

“If we never felt afraid, we may not take objective danger seriously,” Hays said. “And if we never felt sadness, we would not care when we lost a loved one and, therefore, would not value our close relationships. Likewise, anger tells us that something is not right. Perhaps our safety is being threatened, injustice is happening or some action is being required of us. These are just a few of the purposes these types of emotions serve.”

“Negative” feelings do not need to be fixed

“Fighting against our own feelings is a losing battle that causes undue suffering on top of the pain we are already experiencing,” Hays said. “Instead of being able to face the situation, we end up pretending the situation doesn’t exist and spend a lot of time rationalizing why we should not feel that way; but when we avoid our difficult emotions rather than accepting them, we do not develop the emotional skills required to build resilience or learn to trust in our capacity to handle difficult experiences.” 

The importance of acknowledging negative emotions, rather than suppressing them, cannot be overstated.

To acknowledge one’s emotions, Hays recommends three steps one should take.

  • Stop and turn toward the difficult emotions. Take a deep breath and “sit with” anxiety, fear, anger or guilt one may be feeling. Do not judge the emotion, try to suppress it with food or substances, or try to avoid it.
  • Identify the emotions and use descriptive words to label them. By identifying the emotion, one is acknowledging that it is there. For example, one could say to themselves, “I am noticing anxiety.”
  • Imagine “opening up the door” to the emotion. Opening the door means seeing the emotion for what it is instead of being enmeshed in the feeling. Creating this space allows people to recognize that they are not their anger, anxiety, pain or shame. It reminds them that they are much greater than any difficult emotion they may be experiencing at the time.

Happiness is experienced as a byproduct of values-based living

Instead of searching for happiness, Hays recommends searching for one’s meaning and purpose in life. By building one’s life around their most deeply held values, feelings of happiness will be a joyous byproduct of that life.

“Even when living a values-based life, it is important to remember that no feeling lasts forever, including happiness, which is an inherent part of the human existence,” Hays said. “A life with purpose and meaning involves experiencing the entire spectrum of human emotions. By accepting our experience, we can develop the psychological flexibility to productively deal with suffering and avoid the happiness trap.”  

To begin finding one’s purpose, Hays recommends starting by identifying core values.

“Begin by making a list of everything you value (e.g., helping others, learning, family, health, creativity, etc.), and then narrowing that list down to five of your most deeply held values,” Hays said. “Next, look at the list and consider how your current life and work align with those values. Think about which values you may not be giving enough attention to in your life. What do you need to start or stop doing to live a life that more fully embraces these values? When we use our values as our guide, we find purpose and meaning in our lives.”