By Emma Young
It’s natural to start a new year with plans to make this one better than the last. But if you are thinking about how to boost your wellbeing, it’s worth knowing that some “good” ways of living have dark sides, too…
People who are happy — who enjoy “hedonistic wellbeing” — experience plenty of positive emotions and are generally pretty satisfied with life. If this sounds like something worth aiming for, then a word of caution: there’s plenty of evidence that striving to be happier can backfire. The authors of an influential review article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science back in 2011 concluded that while some of the strategies recommended for boosting happiness — such as taking time in the day to reflect on what you are grateful for — are far from bad in themselves, if you expect that they will make you feel noticeably happier, but find that they don’t, you can be left worse off than when you started. More recently, Aekyoung Kim and Sam Maglio from Rutgers concluded that people who pursue happiness can end up feeling that the time in the day to do what’s needed to achieve this is vanishing — which makes them more unhappy.
Two of the lessons from research in this area: don’t start out with high expectations of how much happier you might become, and don’t feel that you should be devoting a lot of time to becoming happier. You might also want to look beyond happiness…
Happiness is one dimension of wellbeing. But there’s also “eudaimonia” — the feeling that your life has meaning, and that you are reaching your potential.
No end of studies have highlighted the importance of meaning. In 2019, for example, Andrew Steptoe and Daisy Fancourt at UCL published a study in PNAS finding that people who felt more strongly that the things they did in their life were worthwhile — in other words, that their lives had meaning — were better off in all kinds of ways: socially, physically and emotionally. However, a recent study by David Lane and Eugene Mathes in Personality and Individual Differences revealed that there can be downsides to meaning, too. The team’s study of university students found that those who perceived education and relationships as being meaningful reported more positive emotion — but also a greater fear of failure. “These findings suggest that meaning in life may be associated with not only happiness, but also stress because of the worry over losing the meaningful experience,” the researchers write.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue meaningful experiences, of course. But it does suggest that it’s sensible to prepare for the possibility that doing so may cause you some anxiety, as well. Still, that might not be a bad thing…
What is a good life, anyway?
Research into what makes some people feel that theirs is a “good life” tends to focus on happiness and meaning. But last year, US-based psychologists Shigehiro Oshi and Erin Westgate argued that we’ve been missing a crucial third dimension: “psychological richness”. A psychologically rich life is characterised by plenty of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. These need not be uniformly positive experiences. At their worst, they may even be traumatic at the time. When the researchers asked participants from nine different countries which type of life they would go for if they could only choose one, most chose “happy”, and “meaningful” came second, but there was a “substantial minority” of participants — ranging from 7% in Singapore to 17% in Germany — who said they would opt for a psychologically rich life above a happy or a meaningful one. For this group, at least, this most defines a “good life” for them. And anyone wanting to pursue this type of life should be prepared for difficulties, as well as great times, along the way.
Maybe you’re starting to wonder whether it would be better to set aside the grand pursuit of a good life, and aim for something else instead. Like feeling calmer, perhaps?
Mindfulness is often promoted as a way to achieve this. Indeed, there are plenty of studies finding that mindfulness can help even with mental health problems. However, as we first reported back in 2015, and later explored in episode 15 of our PsychCrunch podcast in 2019, there are also reasons to be cautious. Mindfulness is not risk-free. For example, it doesn’t necessarily foster empathy and can even make narcissists worse, and while there is some work finding that it can improve decision-making, say, there’s also research concluding that it increases people’s susceptibility to false memories.
Perhaps it was inevitable that something once so incredibly popular should experience a backlash. But if you haven’t tried mindfulness training before and are considering it for 2022, it’s worth knowing about the potential downsides, too.
If all fails…
If you do set yourself some goals for 2022, and find that you don’t quite achieve your hoped-for levels of happiness, meaning, psychological richness, calmness — or even “just” eating more healthily and exercising more — there is a way to mitigate the anxiety that might result. Earlier this year, we looked at the latest research on how best to cope with failure. The key recommendations included:
- Be kind to yourself
- Resist socially prescribed perfectionism
- Don’t worry too much if you were over-confident — and wrong
- Try not to take evidence of failure too personally
In fact, if you are looking for some evidence-based ways of going about boosting your wellbeing in 2022, maybe this is the place to start. Because all of us, at some point, set ourselves goals that we don’t quite meet. One option is to stop setting goals. Another is to learn how to cope when not all work out — so you can reap the benefits of those that do.
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest