Happiness Myths…Busted!

Have you ever seen the popular Discovery Channel show MythBusters? I love watching the hosts set up scenarios where movie scenes, popular assumptions, and more are tested and proven to be valid…or not.

Recently, I read about a scientific study that did something similar: It “busted” many of the myths our culture believes about happiness. Begun in 1938, the Grant Study followed 268 young male Harvard students throughout their lives. (In fact, it’s still ongoing!) The study’s goal is both simple and incredibly profound: to identify the factors that enable us to live happy, healthy lives. As the study’s published findings show, many of those factors aren’t what scientists thought they would be.

Here are six happiness myths the Grant Study busted, along with my own thoughts about them. I’ll be quoting this article written by George E. Vaillant, who was the study’s director from 1972 to 2004:

Myth # 1: Coming from a privileged background gives people a leg up in life. Vaillant writes: “We found that measures of family socioeconomic status had no significant correlation at all with later success in any of these areas [economic success, mental and physical health, and social supports and relationships].”

If you’re familiar with my story, you know that this busted myth is no surprise to me. I grew up in a very comfortable home and went on to become extremely financially successful. And I also suffered a nervous breakdown! No, I certainly won’t deny that financial security is a great blessing. But at the end of the day, all it allows you to do is suffer in comfort. Being bullied, suffering from perfectionism, living an out-of-balance life, coping with loss, and more aren’t any easier because you drive a nice car and have money in the bank.

Myth # 2: Being a people person will help me to be successful. Vaillant writes: “The sociability and extraversion that were so highly valued in the initial process of selecting the men did not correlate with later flourishing.”

Our society really values being a “people person”—and so, it seems, did the researchers who set up this study! The more friends and acquaintances we have, the thinking goes, the more socially satisfied we’ll be, and the more opportunities we’ll have. Here’s the problem: Very often, “sociability” is simply good acting. For a relationship to truly impact your happiness, it has to go deeper and be more meaningful than successful small talk. Whether you are an extrovert, an introvert, or somewhere in between, it’s the quality—not the quantity—of your relationships that counts.

Myth # 3: I don’t need a great social life to flourish in other areas. Vaillant writes: “…success in relationships was very highly correlated with both economic success and strong mental and physical health.”

This busted myth piggybacks on # 2, demonstrating further that quality relationships are “where it’s at” because they have a ripple effect throughout other areas of our lives. When you cultivate authentic, mutually supportive, positive relationships with others, you’ll feel less anxious and lonely, and more empowered. You’ll also have a reliable safety net to fall back on when something goes wrong. This is an ideal scenario for attracting opportunity, building professional success, and avoiding stress-related ailments like high blood pressure, depression, and more.

Myth # 4: People with natural intelligence are most successful. Vaillant writes: “We found… that there was no significant difference between the maximum earned incomes of the men with IQs of 110-115 and the incomes of the men with IQs of 150-plus.”

Vaillant goes on to report that men with “warm relationships” made an average of $141,000 more per year (yes, you read that right!) than their peers with the “worst scores for relationships.” Are you seeing a pattern here? I am. Once again, quality relationships have a much bigger impact on success than something our society assumes should be a big driver. Here, the takeaway is that natural intelligence will get you only so far on its own. People don’t care how smart you are if you’re cold, rude, dismissive, unsupportive, etc. So often in business (and in life), it’s not what you know so much as how you make people feel.

Myth # 5: I can’t help that I’m not a happy person. It’s just not my nature, and I can’t change that. Vaillant writes: “If you follow lives long enough, people adapt and they change, and so do the factors that affect healthy adjustment.”

In his article, Vaillant tells the story of study participant Godfrey Minot Camille, who was initially “a disaster as a young man”: Camille was unhappy, a hypochondriac, had few meaningful connections with others, and even attempted suicide. But when he died, Camille was one of the most successful participants in the study in terms of his professional success, health, fulfillment, relationships, and more. Over time, Camille learned to forge and develop meaningful relationships. He had a spiritual awakening. And he replaced unhealthy coping mechanisms with more productive ones.

I can relate! Over the course of my own happiness journey, I’ve become a very different person from the man I used to be prior to my breakdown. I have learned that happiness isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you choose. Yes, people can change. Everyone can learn skills, attitudes, coping mechanisms, etc. that radically change how they experience life.

Myth # 6: Physical attractiveness contributes to happiness. Vaillant writes: “At the outset of the Study in 1939, it was thought that men with masculine body types—broad shoulders and a slender waist—would succeed the most in life. That turned out to be one of many theories demolished by the Study as it has followed the lives of these men.”

It’s easy to assume that being good-looking makes you happier. But in my experience, “beautiful” people struggle with self-esteem issues just like the rest of us (sometimes to much greater degrees). And who cares how attractive a face is if the personality behind it is ugly? How you treat other people is much more impactful than how you look.

These are certainly not all of the myths that the Grant Study busts. But I do think they illustrate an important point: True happiness comes from positive relationships, a healthy perspective, and the willingness to change. No matter what society tells us, good looks, money, and even our own pasts don’t define and fulfill us.


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Masks: The Other Side of the Coin

Two weeks ago I wrote about the “masks” we so often wear in our daily lives—an appropriate topic to post about on the day before Halloween, I thought! Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth…

…As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

As far as they go, I did—and still do—stand by those words. Living an inauthentic, out-of-balance life in which you deny yourself self-love (and perhaps don’t live by your values) is a mistake.

However, after that post went live I received an email from a friend that caused me to think about masks in a different, more positive light. Essentially, this friend reminded me that sometimes masks can help us become happier, healthier, less dysfunctional people. And you know what? She is exactly right!

Have you ever been in this situation? You’ve identified something that isn’t working in your life (perhaps it’s a negative mask that you’ve been wearing), but you aren’t sure what to do next. You may not think you have the tools or the ability to move forward and make a change.

For example, maybe you’d like to be more assertive at work, but you consistently lose your nerve when it’s time to speak up in meetings. Maybe you’ve ended a relationship and want to move on, but can’t seem to find the motivation to add events to your empty social calendar. Or this year, you’d like to be more welcoming and engaging at your extended family’s holiday party…but how, exactly, do you stop dwelling on your bitter, judgmental feelings about half the people in the room?

In any of these situations, you can—as my friend suggested—put on a positive mask. You can “try on” positive new habits and attitudes. They may not feel natural at first, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they become habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • As a young leader in my family’s company, I often felt through-the-roof stress and tended to handle my anxiety poorly when a crisis cropped up. Sometimes, I even felt physically sick. (In fact, my father told me that if I couldn’t learn to manage my anxiety in a healthier way, he might have to transition me to a different role.) So I put on a mask. Even though I didn’t feel calm when a manager quit with no notice, for instance, I reminded myself that handling instances like this was part of my job description and challenged myself to act with competence. Before long, I learned that I could handle what my job threw at me, and my “mask” of capability soon became reality.
  • Later in my career, I worked with a lot of salespeople. Many of them were naturally outgoing individuals, but some weren’t. I challenged these more reserved salespeople to think of and imitate their favorite comedians while talking to potential customers. When these salespeople put on their “comedian” masks, their sales numbers usually shot up!
  • After going through a difficult time, a friend was stuck in a rut. Tired of feeling like a victim, she decided to “copy” a vivacious acquaintance. In time, my friend found that acting more open and friendly made her feel much happier—and brought a lot of exciting opportunities into her life! Now, she says, what was once a mask has become second nature.

So, friends: Continue to be vigilant about recognizing and moving away from masks that are holding you back and keeping you from living an authentic life. But don’t be afraid to try on new masks that have the potential to make you a happier, healthier, more vibrant individual.

Remember, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you think and react. Making a conscious choice to change those things—even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural at first—is the best way I know to become more resilient, capable, and happy.

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