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Why being irrational is key to happiness

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

Though we all may strive to be as happy as we can be, researchers in the field of subjective wellbeing agree that it’s not possible to be 100% happy all of the time. In fact, Deakin University researchers have established that our set-point for happiness is closer to 80%.

This means that while your happiness level may go up in response to something good happening, and go down when something bad happens, it will balance out to around 80% most of the time.

So how do we recover our set-point when something happens to threaten our happiness?

Three psychological mechanisms are key, and they are typically our first line of defence.

Self-esteem

Self-esteem reflects a sense that we are valued and worthy of love from others.

Importantly, although it’s healthy to have a strong sense of self-esteem, people with very high self-esteem can sometimes come across as arrogant or narcissistic. A more contemporary definition of self-esteem, then, is that it is the ability to recognise that you are flawed and still hold yourself in high regard.

When it comes to the maintenance of your wellbeing, self-esteem is important because it encourages a separation between the event and the self. It allows you to accept the challenging event, while maintaining your own self-concept as a decent, competent person.

A person with low self-esteem is more likely to internalise the threatening event and attribute it to being their fault. But a person with higher self-esteem can simultaneously experience the threatening event and maintain the belief that ‘I am a good person’.

A healthy level of self-esteem will further allow you to believe that you have the ability to overcome whatever adversity you’re facing, and will motivate you to take action to resolve your situation.

Optimism

Optimism describes a positive attitude towards the future, and underlies the belief that good things are more likely to happen to you in the future than bad things.

A recent article has gone so far as to suggest that optimism is the cause of longevity. However, optimism’s link to psychological wellbeing is better understood in the way that it emphasises the temporary nature of a challenging event.

An optimistic outlook encourages people to see that their condition will improve, and that the distress they are experiencing will in fact diminish in time.

Optimism promotes a sense of impermanence, providing comfort in the faith that this too shall pass, and that things will get better.

'Deakin University researchers have established that our set-point for happiness is closer to 80%.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Control

Having a sense of control over our world is critical to feeling that we can manage the ups and downs that life inevitably throws our way.

Control can be defined in different ways, but it ultimately reflects the sense that the world is predictable and familiar, and that we can influence the things that happen to us. Feeling in control is the opposite of feeling helpless, so it can direct us to respond with action and intention to challenging events in our lives.

When something bad happens to us, it is common to feel out of control, as if we didn’t see this coming. Having a plan for what to do next helps to regain our sense of control, and it is this plan that helps us to feel that the event is unlikely to happen again.

Irrational thoughts are key to happiness

The three ‘buffers’ described above are critical to the healthy maintenance of our wellbeing around its set-point, and were featured in a seminal piece of research by Taylor and Brown in 1988.

These researchers challenged the paradigm that a healthy mind is a rational mind. They revealed that most people disproportionately believe:

  • they are better than others
  • their future is brighter than others
  • they can control the things that happen to them.

They proposed instead that a hallmark of healthy wellbeing is having unrealistically positive evaluations about your sense of self, your future, and your ability to master your world.

A healthy mind is thus an irrational mind.

Self-esteem, optimism, and a sense of control can be thought of as your first line of defence against an adverse event that occurs in your life.

Armed with these three weapons, you’re well placed to defend against challenges to your wellbeing. But don’t forget that the most important thing when it comes to managing your wellbeing is having a close friend or partner to reinforce that you are loved, that things will get better, and that you can make things better when things don’t go your way.

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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