C’mon get happy! Starting now!
Are you able to admit that your life is awesome without getting doubtful looks? Why do we doubt our own joy?
so how are you?” a friend asked me at brunch recently. I hadn’t seen her in a while and thought for a moment. “Great!” I replied. “Things have been going really well for me.” Even I was surprised by my response; it’s rare that I don’t have a complaint at the ready. Apparently my friend was taken aback, too. “Really?” she asked. “That’s awesome. I’m happy for you.” And there was an awkward pause. In the silence I realised I had violated an unspoken code. The answer to “How are you?” is supposed to be “I’m so busy and stressed!” And indeed, when I asked what was new with her, she rattled off complaints: annoyed with her mom, drowning at work.
The exchange made me realise something else. I noticed, strangely, that I felt a little guilty. Doubts began to creep in: Was I really happy? Or had all my yoga, meditation and therapy sessions just momentarily tricked me into thinking that I was? I reassessed: I had a new job I loved, I’d been dating someone exciting – dammit, I was satisfied. But the whole episode made me wonder, ‘Why is there this happiness catch-22 in which all we want is to feel it, but when we do, we can’t accept it?’ Experts have
actually studied this phenomenon and have isolated some pretty good reasons.
1 It’s human nature
Those doubts I felt? Turns out they are a pretty standard reaction to life’s feel-good moments. “Happiness makes us feel vulnerable, because we’re scared it will be taken away from us,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Andrea Bonior. Our species is also hardwired to see the worst in things. “Evolutionarily speaking, human beings had to be pessimistic to survive,” notes psychologist Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness (Penguin Books; R305). “If you were too happy or optimistic, you might miss threats in the environment.”
2 Women especially doubt their happiness
Even though I was certain I was enjoying my life, I couldn’t help chalking it up to a lucky streak. ‘I’m sure this won’t last,’ I thought. Also a totally normal reaction, experts say. “It’s uncomfortable for women to own their successes, and our society creates that discomfort,” says Dr Bonior. “Our culture still doesn’t see women as being as competent as men, which undermines female accomplishments in general.” Objectively, I know that crediting my success to luck is ridiculous: I’ve worked hard for my happiness, surviving countless dates, merciless bosses and challenging therapy to get to this good place. But the reflexive self-doubt is hard to kick, Dr Bonior acknowledges. Do you notice yourself dismissing your accomplishments? Dr Bonior recommends listing what it took for you to make them happen.
“We know how easily things can go wrong,” Dr Bonior says. Dr Lyubomirsky agrees: “When everything is going right, women tend to question or overthink it.” Other women told me they, too, have a hard time relishing their happiness. “Sometimes when things are going really well for me, I don’t let myself feel happy because I don’t want to jump the gun,” says Allison, a 29-year-old actress.
3 Negativity brings us together
Another reason we hesitate to embrace our joy? As I saw at brunch, shared misery is a huge part of how women bond. “Our perspectives are biased toward pessimism,” says psychologist Dr Emma Seppälä. “We are more likely to pay attention to negative situations than to positive ones.” This tendency can mean that connections forged in complaining may feel stronger than positive ones.
4 We compartmentalise our happiness
There actually is one place we feel we have permission to be downright giddy: social media. Your vacay shots, your meticulous brunch bowl, your cat – only on Instagram can you express joy and receive just positive feedback. ‘Likes’ pour in, and even if you do have a few annoyed friends, you don’t have to deal with their eye rolls. And real-life conversations tend to fast-forward past the good stuff, which your friends have already double-tapped.
So how can we finally embrace our joy?
There are powerful reasons to let yourself feel good, especially offline. “People who acknowledge their happiness are healthier than those who don’t,” says Dr Lyubomirsky. “They’re more likely to find a partner, have better relationships and they’re stronger leaders.” So quiet that voice that’s telling you this is all about to disappear. And also know that it’s OK to admit it when you feel happy, even though it feels a bit like bragging. Your good vibes may be contagious to others. “Research shows that people who are happy influence three degrees of separation around them,” says Dr Seppälä. We owe it to ourselves and one another to be happy – and to unabashedly bask in that joy.
“When everything is going right, women tend to question it or overthink it.”