Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish To Try to Be Happier.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for last two weeks, I’ve been debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish and Self-Centered To Try to Be Happier.

Myth No. 10 is the most pernicious myth about happiness. It comes in a few varieties. One holds that “In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.” Another one is “Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.”

Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.

I’ve certainly noticed this about myself. When I’m feeling happy, I find it easier to notice other people’s problems, I feel that I have more energy to try to take action, I have the emotional wherewithal to tackle sad or difficult issues, and I’m not as preoccupied with myself. I feel more generous and forgiving.

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, one of my biggest intellectual breakthroughs was the identification of my Second Splendid Truth. There’s a circularity to it that confused me for a long time. At last, one June morning, it came clear:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Everyone accepts the first part of the Second Splendid Truth, but the second part is just as important. By making the effort to make yourself happier, you better equip yourself to make other people happier, as well. It’s not selfish to try to be happier. In fact, the epigraph to the book The Happiness Project is a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

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On a positive psychology listserv, I read comments by Professor Todd Kashdan, and I see he did an interesting study on the relationship of gratitude to happiness — and how men are much less likely to feel and express gratitude than are women.

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  • Kristin

    I agree with that fact that the best way to help others be happy s to work on your own happiness first. you cant love someone else if you dont love yourself first. I think that in this situation the message is similar. kristin

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t think we can wait until we are happy before helping others to be happy. It happens simultaneously, I believe. As we help others, we become happier ourselves. Then we continue to help others and realize how happy that makes us, and then we continue. We can decide to be happy, just as we can make a decision to love. It isn’t always a feeling.

  • Tanya

    In the teachings of Abraham, he talks about attracting joy by being joyful. I think this fits the circularity idea. If we are doing something that makes us happy, we attract more happy moments – whether we are doing something just for us or doing something for someone else.

  • Arrmia

    No, I don’t think it’s selfish to make an attempt at being happier. In fact, I think one owes it to both themselves and the people around them to make an attempt at being happy or happier. If one is happy, then their confidence and or self-esteem level will rise and the person will take pride in themselves and become more productive in both their professional and personal lives.

  • Aidan

    What I have to agree with about this post most is the idea behind the Second Splendid Truth. I personally find this as a common occurrence in my life. It seems as though whenever one person is feeling down the mood spreads and others become unhappy, but the same happens with joy or happiness. By trying to make one feel happy or by spreading our own happiness we end up bringing happiness upon ourselves or embellishing our already existing joy; regardless of whether it’s because of completing a goal or because of spreading a so-called, good or bad energy vibe, we still become happy.

  • Melissa

    The journey and pursuit to and of happiness (i.e the process of getting happier) is SEEMINGLY self centred and selfish. I think it’s the AFTERMATH of finally achieving happiness that then leads one to be REALLY interested in making others happy etc etc. That’s how I see it. As of now I am in the pursuit, and not principally interested in happiness of others, just myself. Simultaneously, I do care that people close/around me are happy. Get my drift?.

  • Melissa

    Oh also, I forgot to comment on your four splendid truths on happiness.
    “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
    One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself”
    Should be the other way round, the latter should come first. As far as I am concerned it is near impossible to be interested in another person’s happiness if YOU are not happy yourself. Let’s face it, we humans are born with a little dose of healthy “selfishness”.
    The same way you cannot really love someone else without true and absolute self love. You may think you love that person but really you don’t. Quite frankly I don’t believe too much in the supposed truth that making others happy can make you happy, unless its a loved one (family, husband etc etc)

  • Daniel

    Im watching over my dad who is disabled and constantly in pain, however I am at the age (25 going on 26) where I feel like should be fighting for independance, and trying to make it on my own, and I have been doing this since I got out of college without proper time to figure out what I want to do. My dad needs a ride to dialisis every other day, and appointments every day in between but I have hit the wall. I cannot fathom a common ground of me finding a job, while in a state of depression feeling that I don’t have the time to give. I find myself weak, tired, and even stressed to the point of tears.
    I want to know, is it selfishness? Am I right in wanting and trying to break out? I do find myself always wanting to go out of the way for other people but in this particular case, its become an obligation rather than favor.
    Every time I want to tell my dad, “I cant keep doing this” I feel guilt and disgust that I am too weak to be good a son and that I would rather ditch him to live my life the way I want.
    I don’t know what I should do, and I dont know what is the right thing to do.

    • heidi smith

      live in the moment and take time for you,maybe care services can give you a cna to give you a break to go biking fishing hiking just to get out in the sunshine and get away.I was not there for my mom when she was dying.To this day I wish I could go back and take care of her before she passed.What you are going threw is your trail to your future and how you do will will be your future.

  • Sarah xP

    OMG!! thnxx :D dat helped me aloot !! m writin’ an essay about hapiness and self sacrifice and i got pretty good ideas from ur words :) thnxxx aloot ,, i would love to see more of this happiness project …

  • Holly

    I think helping others can make you happier. You focus on them and in return they usually compliment you–thanks for listening, thanks for caring, thanks for your help. Then take a moment and reflect on that–I am a considerate person, I am a good listener, I am always there for others. It is in giving that we receive.