Ever had someone tell you to just cheer up? Did it drive you crazy? Well, turns out that someone telling you to “be happy” isn’t just annoying – it’s also wildly unhelpful.
If you think about it, ‘Happy’ is a pretty useless word – if you tell someone to be happy, it doesn’t actually tell them what to do.
In fact being happy is a little bit like falling asleep: it’s not something you can actively do – in the way you can get stronger by lifting more weights. It just kind of has to happen.
Well-being can be broken into five elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA). Improve those and you might find yourself closer to that vague idea of “happiness”.
Why does it seem like we are wired for pessimism?
The species that was going through the Ice Ages had been bred, and selected, through pessimism. The mentality that said, “It’s a beautiful day today, I bet it’ll be beautiful tomorrow” got crushed by the ice. What got selected for in the Ice Ages, was bad weather animals, who were always thinking about the bad stuff that could occur. So what comes naturally to people is pessimism.
The problem about pessimism is that, to the extent that it’s gonna be a nice day tomorrow, and you’re thinking all the time, “What a disaster it’s gonna be,” you can’t enjoy it. What needs teaching, because it doesn’t come naturally, is optimism.
When you look at pessimistic people, probably their single most telling hallmark is they think that bad events are permanent and that they’re unchangeable. So what learned optimism is all about is recognising that you’re saying that to yourself, and then realistically arguing against it.
It seems like people today are really struggling with optimism.
It’s very easy to get mired down in the world’s more mundane, bad events. Someone being President who you don’t like, and so on. But things are actually getting better, and there’s a long-term cause for hope. We need to realise that human progress is what we’re riding on, and it projects into a good future.
There’s a big optimism gap between how people feel about their own lives – which is about 6.5 out of 10, on average – and how they feel about the world, which is much more like 4 out of 10. The antidote is to realise that 100 to 150 years ago, the average lifespan was in the 40’s; now it’s in the low 80’s. Malnourishment, access to clean water, real income, literacy – that’s the stuff that really tells you about human progress…
So cheer up and put a smile on that face – it’s actually going to be a good day!