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Are we overthinking happiness?

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

A common conversation I have with clients involves distinguishing thoughts from feelings. I’ll ask them: ‘What’s the difference between a thought and a feeling?’ They’ll give me a puzzled look as if it’s both the most obvious question in the world and also impossible to explain. The answer becomes clearer when I ask them to identify where a thought is located? ‘It’s in your head’, they typically respond. ’And a feeling?’ I ask. ’Well, I guess that’s throughout your body’.

This is an important part of the therapeutic process because it enables the client to recognise that thoughts and feelings, though often connected, are distinct.

But what happens when we think too much about how we’re feeling? Is it possible that we’re thinking too much about being happy?

Thinking about feeling

The business of thinking about happiness used to be reserved for the scholars and philosophists, the Aristotles and Platos of the world.

But perhaps, an unintended consequence of the self-help phenomenon or the positive psychology landscape of the early 21st century is that now, thinking about happiness is commonplace.

And, unlike Aristotles or Plato, when we think about happiness, we often think about it in extreme terms. This isn’t entirely our fault. As children, we’re taught to think of things as being opposites – hot or cold, good or bad, happy or sad.

This black and white thinking is helpful when we’re young. It helps our developing brain to understand the world more generally. But as we get older, we’re able to think in more abstract and intellectual ways, and dichotomous interpretations of real-world concepts lose validity.

So when we think about our happiness, we need to move away from the all-or-nothing approach and towards a more mature understanding that happiness is more than just a single positive thought, or a fixed state of being. We need to revise the way that we think about how we feel.

Paying attention to happiness

Previously, I’ve discussed how the optimal level of happiness is around 80%, and how the theory of subjective wellbeing homeostasis works to regulate our emotions and keep us functioning at or around our set-point. The analogy to our body temperature is pertinent – we aren’t typically aware of it until something happens to shift it from its optimal level.

'So when we think about our happiness, we need to move away from the all-or-nothing approach and towards a more mature understanding that happiness is more than just a single positive thought, or a fixed state of being.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

We’re not typically aware of our happiness until something happens to shift our mood away from its default level.

But in today’s self-help obsessed world of wellness warriors, we’re constantly being asked to pay attention to our happiness, and to take conscious action to improve it.

Imagine that you were asked to pay attention to your body temperature for an extended period of time. Try it for a minute. You start to notice things that you weren’t aware of before, and maybe you start to think about whether you’re a bit colder, or a bit warmer than you’re used to. You’re actually perfectly fine, you’re just noticing things you weren’t aware of before.

When we push people to draw attention to their happiness, it doesn’t take long to start to think about it in a way we’re not used to. And because we’re designed to focus on and feel the negative more than the positive, we’ll quickly move towards thinking of the parts of our lives we’re not as happy about. Again, you’re actually perfectly fine, you’re just noticing things you weren’t aware of before.

This is perfect for the life coaches and wellness warriors around us who have all the answers in their latest book, online course, mindset program, or vitamin pill. Create a world where people become aware of their inadequacies, and sell them a product to cure all.

It’s clever – it creates a supply and demand market where there previously was none. But it’s fake.

I wouldn’t be the first to claim that our expectations around happiness may contribute to the anxiety or dissatisfaction we experience. But maybe happiness cannot be found in a positive thought, or even in an action. Because happiness is neither a thought nor an action. It’s a feeling.

The secret to happiness

In my line of work I’ll often get asked what I think is the secret to happiness. The simple answer is that the secret is that there is no secret. I would argue, rather, that the more we think there is a secret to happiness, the further away from finding it we’ll be.

If you’re looking to improve your happiness, it’s likely that your brain has identified that you’re not functioning at your optimal level. While I can’t offer a single remedy, a place to start might be to check in with the seven key areas of life that contribute to your overall satisfaction: Your relationships, standard of living, what you are achieving in life, your health, how safe you feel, your connection to your community, and your future security.

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Dr Melissa Weinburg
Dr Melissa Weinburg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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