We are not designed to be always happy
The other days I received a comment from a person in an article he wrote about how to avoid negative thoughts: “It is impossible for someone to always be happy, so this article will not help me”. After a lot of research, I realize that unfortunately, he was right.
Even if we want to, human beings cannot always be happy and with good self-esteem. No matter how well life is going, there will always be a day when we don’t feel up to it or don’t feel like we’re doing the right thing, and that’s normal.
You will find a multitude of books, articles, videos, and courses on how to improve your self-esteem. Unfortunately, most of them are based on ideas that have shown no real efficacy. In fact, some of them are even bad advice that will affect mental health.
That is why in this article I will show you 5 myths that do not work to have high self-esteem or achieve happiness according to science so you never fall back into those false advice again.
1. “Always Look for the Positive Side”
Whenever I am sad and I am telling the reasons and what I think to a friend, one of them will always come with this advice “you must look for the positive side of things”, or “everything happens for a reason”.
This would be excellent advice if it weren’t for the fact that your mind isn’t really programmed to do it.
Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are destined to suffer. For example, what if after presenting something you have been working hard for days to five people, four of them congratulate you, but one tells you it was full of mistakes? What opinion do you think will weigh the most about your emotional state?
Exactly. As studies have shown, humans are designed to value the negative more than the positive. We become obsessed with the bad and forget the good more quickly. Our mind, if you will allow me to say so, wishes to be unhappy.
This is known in psychology as negativity bias, a common phenomenon in people who suffer from anxiety or depression. So negativity is not a conscious choice, but something that is deeply embedded within us. This makes us machines to detect threats, even when they don’t really exist.
But where does all this innate pessimism come from? The answer is in your ancestors.
Our tendency to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things is likely a result of evolution. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death.
The evolutionary perspective suggests that this tendency to insist on the negative rather than the positive is simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe.
We cannot look for the positive side of everything that happens to us because we are not designed for that.
If it is impossible for everything to go well for us, then it is a waste of time to be looking for the positive in everything that happens to us. Everything has a learning curve, but it should not always be positive.
Looking for the positive side of everything is not healthy and would only frustrate us because it is not something we can achieve. Instead, try to think that what happens to us should not always be happy, and that’s normal.
Life is full of ups and downs. What we should do is take advantage of those bad days to see what we can learn from them. We can’t avoid sadness, but we can change the way we react to it.
We can spend our lives thinking that what happens to us is for a reason and accepting those bad parts of life because they have a “purpose”. Or we can also learn from them and not make the same mistake again.
2. “You Have to Fight to be Happy”
You probably think you would be happier with high self-esteem, am I right? It doesn’t surprise me. We live immersed in the culture of happiness.
Currents such as positive psychology, self-help books such as The Secret, or popular Spanish phrases such as “To bad weather, good face” insist on reminding us that we should always be happy.
The harder you try to be happy, the more unhappy you will end up being.
The reason is that happiness is fleeting. We can be very happy during some time of our life, but that will not last long. Because human beings always end up adapting to new circumstances. Proof of this is this study that showed that even something as dreamed of as winning the lottery does not mean any increase in long-term happiness.
The more importance you give to your happiness, the worse you will feel. Why? Because it has been proven that wanting to be happy and being aware that you are not achieving it will make you even more miserable.
Worrying so much about your well-being also ends up affecting your social life. A 2012 study linked the pursuit of happiness to loneliness: the more the participants tried to be happy, the more alone they felt. And it was not just a perception: their progesterone levels decreased as a hormonal response associated with loneliness.
What you can do instead
Stop thinking that the pursuit of happiness is a goal. If it is proven that this will only affect your mental health and in the end, it will not work. It is better to focus on other things in life.
3. “It is Important to Have Big Goals”
A classic self-help tip is to set yourself goals, right? Well, ambitious goals have a very dark side. They can become so obsessed that it is impossible for us to imagine ourselves without them, and sacrificing aspects of our lives that are actually more important.
This is what happened in May 1996, in what is probably the greatest mountaineering tragedy in history. In just two days, 12 people from three different expeditions died while trying to reach the top of Everest.
The mountaineers had become so attached to their goal of topping the mountain that they lost sight of everything else. They even ignored the meteorological reports announcing the very heavy snowstorm that ended their lives.
Despite the fact that all the forecasts advised against starting the expedition, they did it. Now, their goal had become part of his own identity. How could they not try after so many months of grueling training?
Setting goals is a serious problem if you are not able to recognize that you can fail. Then they become something that defines you, and for them, you will be able to sacrifice your health, friends, or family.
This happens to me a lot when in a month I feel that I must have big goals to be “someone important in life.” I spend all my free time and sacrificing my happiness to achieve a very high goal. But at the end of the month, I am disappointed because I could not achieve what I wanted despite making a lot of effort.
What you can do instead
Set smaller but achievable goals and assume that failing doesn’t mean the end of the world. Realistic goals give us more purposes than big goals that we cannot achieve.
You can try again as many times as you want. The good thing about life is that it doesn’t end when you fail (Unless you try something dangerous). So if you couldn’t achieve something in one month, you can keep trying the next month, and that doesn’t mean you are unsuccessful.
4. “You Must Program the Mind with Positive self-Affirmations”
There is a stream of positive thought according to which your mind believes what you tell it. Supposedly, if you repeat mantras like “I am an extraordinary person and I deserve to be loved”, your mind will internalize it and you will begin to act like someone extraordinary.
We humans like to imagine that there are mystical ways to regain control of our destiny. But luckily, the books that popularized these types of theories have been disappearing from the shelves.
A study published in 2009 in Psychological Science wanted to verify the effectiveness of this type of reprogramming. The result was that the participants who used these positive affirmations not only did not improve, but they ended up feeling worse.
The reason is that when you repeat to yourself that you are exceptional or wonderful, your brain immediately asks a question: “Why?”. Your brain is not naive. If they can’t find the answer, they won’t believe what you’re saying. They will reject the claim and consequently, you will feel worse.
Positive self-affirmations only work when they fall within the range of what is credible.
Personally, whenever my friends try to cheer me up by telling me I’m a good writer, they don’t really do anything about it. It is when I begin to review my stats and everything I have achieved over the months that I can affirm what they say.
Instead of hanging post-it notes on every mirror, to remind yourself that you are a good person, start tracking your progress through the years and see what achievements you have made.
Something that helped me a lot instead of “positive affirmations” is Self-observation. In this process, I do a self-assessment of all my strengths and what I must improve to continue growing. This has helped me not to affirm things that I do not know, but to know where I am failing and what I am achieving
5. “Stop Comparing Yourself to Others”
Stop comparing yourself to others is one of the most common tips to “raise your self-esteem” and “improve your happiness”.A lot of personal development books and a lot of coaches told us that Comparison is generally the fast track to unhappiness. That it’s a recipe for misery.
I think that all it does is keeping you focused on what you don’t like about yourself and your life. Believing that we are unique and that is why we cannot achieve what others have achieved is a mediocre way of telling ourselves that we must settle because we are all different.
The reality is that comparison is one of the scientific methods that has made many discoveries possible over the years. For example, the comparison makes it possible for humans to know all the similarities that we have with the chimpanzee, and therefore a lot of research has been done about evolution.
Since we are little, we learn to speak by listening to others speak. We learn to walk because we see others walk. We learn to read and write because others already do. Comparison is essential for learning, that is why it is a scientific research method.
If we don’t compare ourselves to others, how do we know we are doing something correctly? I consider that a fundamental part of growing is seeing how professional people do it and imitating their way of working.
When we buy a course, read a book or listen to someone to learn something, we are imitating their way of doing things.
Comparisons are good and correct for our personal development as long as we use them to learn. We can compare ourselves with others as long as we use that comparison to create a better version of ourselves.
Comparing ourselves is wrong when we want to be like others without any effort or without knowing what has led to their success. But it turns out to be a motivation when we work to be like those we admire.
Therefore, keep having heroes, keep looking for people to inspire you, and compare yourself with whom you are proud to one day become like them.
Our minds will be healthier if we stop listening to advice that has no scientific basis just because a famous person says that work. We must learn to investigate what is best for us, even if it is not what everyone expects us to be.
One thing I am sure of is that happiness is different for everyone. What may work for you may not be what makes me happy. Therefore, instead of reading books about how to be happy, we must begin to worry about what we really want to achieve in our own life.
What other myths about having good self-esteem or “achieving happiness” did you stop believing?