The student center was packed. It was a Tuesday night in the middle of the semester. Were free puppies being given away? Had political activists occupied the commons? No — a speaker was scheduled to talk about “Living a Life of Joy.” It was part of a week of programming sponsored by the junior class to promote health and well-being for students in the throes of midterms. Not a slice of free pizza to be seen anywhere, and yet tons of students had turned out.
The event organizers invited me to say a few words about my own research on happiness to kick off the lecture. After delivering my remarks, I took a seat in the front row, eager to hear what the headliner would have to say. Within just a few minutes, I was floored. But probably not for the reasons the speaker had intended. She began her presentation with a series of lofty promises:
The power to create personal happiness was ours alone. Unending joy was in our reach. It would be possible for us never to have a bad day. Ever again. For the rest of our lives.
With each statement my eyes widened almost as much as my disbelief. I was waiting for her to start waving a wand of holly and phoenix feather.
It’s evident why her presentation attracted such a crowd. College students want to be happy. Happiness, it seems, is their Holy Grail. This quest has apparently replaced the medieval quests for wealth an everlasting life. Nowadays, many in their late teens and early twenties just want to feel better. Some turn to speakers like the one who visited my campus and promised the secret solution to permanent happiness. But not even the most powerful wizard can cast that spell.
THE BEST FOUR YEARS
Within the first decade of the twenty-first century, enrollment at American colleges and universities increased a whopping 24 percent, from 16.6 million in 2002 to 20.6 million in 2012.(1) Why are young adults flocking to the experience? Sure, college opens doors to opportunities that might otherwise not be available — students take courses that will enlighten their minds, develop strong work ethics, and prepare them for careers. But that’s not all that young adults are after. There’s actually something that young adults want even more during these formative years — and that something else turns out to be happiness.
Several years ago, a team of scientists asked nearly ten thousand students in forty-seven countries around the world what they valued most in life. Happiness received the top score, beating out love, money, health, and getting into heaven.(2)
And college, they are told, is the place to find it. Somewhere in the ivory tower is the key. As comedian David Wood once said, “College is the best four years of your life. When else are your parents going to spend several thousand dollars a year just for you to go to a strange town and get drunk every night?”
The message of college as “the best four years” has been propagated ad nauseam by American culture, including television, college survival books, and of course Hollywood. By some estimates, over the last century there have been nearly seven hundred professionally produced movies depicting some aspect of college life.(3) Of course, those movies aren’t in the business of telling the whole truth. As sociologist John Conklin, a professor at Tufts University, notes in his book Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present, “Because the Hollywood dream factory exists to make money, and profits depend on entertaining the public, it isn’t surprising that movies about college life dwell on the fun students have rather than the coursework they do.”(4) Viewers of movies like Animal House, Van Wilder, Old School, and Neighbors (the list goes on and on) spend a lot more time following the main characters toss Frisbees in the quad, set up kegs for fraternity parties, and entertain romantic interests than watching them study, write papers, or take other steps toward fulfilling their degree requirements — never mind struggle with their mental health. These movies, according to Conklin, have seeped into the culture and dramatically affected the expectations young people develop about the college years and their transition to young adulthood.
The reality, however, can be hard to adjust to — especially as young adults enter college on a quest for the Holy Grail of happiness. What happens when “the best four years” are actually harder than they seem in the movies?
In much the same way that college enrollments have dramatically increased over the last few decades, so too has the proportion of students suffering from mental illness. Some have declared that we are in the midst of a college student mental health crisis. From all directions data are emerging, depicting a sobering scene:
- One in three young adults has experienced prolonged periods of depression.
- One in two rate their mental health below average or poor.(5)
- College students were five times as likely to score above the cutoffs for psychopathology in the early 2000s than they were in the middle part of the twentieth century.(6)
- From 2007 to 2015 the suicide rate for teenagers increased 31 percent for boys and more than doubled for girls.(7)
The psychological distress plaguing ever-increasing numbers of young adults each year is undermining progress toward their goals. A recent survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that, among students who withdraw from college, nearly two-thirds say they dropped out due to their mental health.
Professionals within higher education are responding. Many institutions have increased the number of mental health counselors available in the student health center and made the accommodations at disability resource centers more robust. Still, the same survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that only half of students with a mental health diagnosis disclose their condition to their college.(8)
Whether or not they are reporting it — and whether or not they themselves are experiencing it — young adults today are feeling distress at levels never seen before. As it turns out, “the best four years” can involve navigating a lot more than cultural rites of passage like keg parties, first loves, and the freshman fifteen. But young adults are also reaching out. Whether it’s attending a lecture on “Living a Life of Joy,” buying books, reading articles, or signing up in droves for a non-required class on happiness, young adults are interested in understanding psychological health, be it for themselves or out of concern for friends, classmates, or roommates. This could explain the popularity of a psychology major at most colleges and universities today, as well as the explosion of the self-help movement. It could also explain why a trend within psychology has generated interest and enthusiasm unlike any of its other subdisciplines: positive psychology.
THE RISE OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Over the last two decades, researchers in the field of positive psychology have embarked on a quest to understand and develop strategies for getting happier. This development in psychology came in response to the overwhelming attention the field had previously paid to providing therapy for people in distress. All of that research was important — studies investigating depression, anxiety, and fear allowed educators and clinicians to offer effective solutions to the many afflicted. However, the president of the American Psychological Association declared a call to action in the late 1990s: In addition to addressing pathology, we should also understand positivity. It wasn’t enough just to fix what went wrong with a person; it was just as important to use the field’s understanding of human emotion to bring people to a truly flourishing life.
By the early 2000s, positive psychology had received prominent coverage in widespread media outlets including Time, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times Magazine, PBS, and the BBC. Hundreds of scientific articles have since been published, advancing our understanding of the nature of happiness and how it can be increased.
Scientists weren’t the only ones sharing what they knew. An even larger number of self-help gurus, journalists, and motivational speakers appeared on the scene to educate the masses. A search for happiness books on Amazon yields hundreds of returns. This overabundance of ideas on the topic makes it difficult to know which sources can be trusted and are actually useful to young adults specifically. The advantage of looking to positive psychology is that its large body of research has been conducted primarily on young adults themselves. Its ideas are based not on magic or intuition, but on systematic observations and empirically supported conclusions that have withstood rigorous scientific testing. Positive psychology offers sound evidence that can be applied toward increasing well-being today and many years into the future.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Before we jump into the how of getting happier, it’s important to first understand a few things about the nature of happiness and its pursuit.
After all, as the science of happiness has grown, so too have misconceptions about it and criticisms of it. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article asking, “Is Happiness Overrated?”(9) A year later USA Today published an apparent response, “Final Word: Happiness Is Overrated. You Can Bank on It.”(10) Books on the topic are just as snide. Consider Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?(11) Or Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.(12) Apparently you can’t be both happy and normal.
These books and articles are rooted in the same misconceptions that led the guest speaker on campus to tell us it was possible to never have a bad day again. They treat happiness as if it were a sacred chalice being sought by the knights of King Arthur, a remedy for all our ills and maladies. Though well intentioned, these commenters are not taking into account two important premises at the foundation of positive psychology. Let’s address each of them now, to separate the science from the supernatural.
Premise #1: Positive Psychology Is Not about Being Happy All the Time
Many people believe that the goal of positive psychology is pure, uninterrupted, everlasting happiness. Even an article recently published by the National Post equated positive psychology with “the notion that a perpetually upbeat outlook is entirely possible once we rid our ‘thought patterns’ of all things negative and ugly.”(13) In reality, no credible source in the field will tell you that. Scientists have studied thousands of people from all walks of life, and we have yet to find anyone who is happy all the time. It is not something we expect to find, either.
Research from the lab of Dr. Randy Larsen, one of the field’s leading experts, confirms that negativity is part of life. He has collected data on thousands of college students along the full range of psychological health: those in the depths of despair all the way up to those at the pinnacle of joy. The average psychologically healthy young adult experiences positivity about 70 percent of the time. If you think back to your last ten days, and three of them were neutral or unpleasant, you’re actually doing pretty well. Even the happiest students, he finds, aren’t happy all the time. They are happy only about 90 percent of the time. So even if you are at the top of the happiness pack, at least one day of the last ten probably left you feeling down.
Aspiring to a life free of any hardship is not only unrealistic, it could also backfire, as one of my students learned:
“I’ve personally struggled with depression most of my life, but during my sophomore year in college, I hit rock bottom. For years I had busied myself taking hard courses, competing in piano, and overcommitting in clubs and in my social life to avoid how I felt. I didn’t realize that running away from my painful emotions would only make them come back that much stronger.”
This student’s experience is explained by a phenomenon psychologists call the rebound effect. As an illustration, think about your favorite animal. Develop a vivid representation in your mind of the animal’s shape, size, and color. What kind of food does it eat? Where does it live? I forgot to mention one rule: the animal cannot be a polar bear. It can be anything except one of those cute white polar bears with soft fur and black round eyes, perched atop an iceberg waiting to dive into the water. Don’t think about that polar bear.
Whether you were thinking of a polar bear when you began reading the last paragraph or not, you are thinking about one now. The act of trying not to think about something causes the thought to “rebound,” making us think about it even more than we otherwise would have. The same happens with our emotions. When we have a bad day, the act of trying not to feel bad can make us feel even worse. Instead, a healthier approach is to implement strategies that manage our angst productively.
Putting our emotions into language by talking things over with a friend or writing them out allows us to gain new insight into our experiences and speed our recovery.
We have evolved a complex set of human emotions for a reason. Positive and negative emotions both serve important functions. Feeling afraid or anxious alerts us to parts of our environment or life that we may need to modify — they can act as an internal alarm system. Think about the last time you had a cough. It was most likely unpleasant, but it was probably improving your overall physical health: the act of coughing is a natural mechanism that helps to break apart noxious matter and send it on its way so that it won’t cause further harm. Psychologically, negative emotions operate in a similar way. They can prompt us to reflect on those aspects of life that may be driving our anxiety or despair, and lead us to make changes.
Of course, negative emotions can sometimes become so severe in frequency and intensity that they render people unable to carry out their normal daily tasks. Certainly in those cases — when negative emotions become disordered — it is important to treat them with clinical interventions. But a case of the blues, a moment of anxiety, or a flash of anger may actually be providing useful information, a signal that something needs to change. One of the most common myths about positive psychology — be it found in books, news articles, or keynote speeches delivered to packed auditoriums of college students — is that the field has found a secret way to be happy all the time. That’s simply not true. Bad days are part of being human. Rather, it’s about minimizing the negative impact of bad days, and capitalizing on the positive impact of good days.
When people hear about this first premise — that it’s not about being happy all the time — they are usually relieved. If you’ve had a bad day, it is because you are human. But when people hear about the second premise, they are often puzzled — at least initially.
Premise #2: Positive Psychology Is Not Even about Being Happy
When I ask my students what motivated them to enroll in my Positive Psychology course, one of the most common responses I hear is that they want to be happy. They want to know what major they need to pursue, what kind of romantic partner they need to find, and how much money they need to make one day to be happy. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of bad news. The course is not designed to make them happy.
Instead, it’s about becoming happier.
To some that difference seems insignificant. Being happy and being happier seem like the same thing, they say. To me there is a world of difference. “Being happy” implies a destination on the horizon instead of a process we can always be working toward. Think of striving to be a good athlete. At what point do you become “good”? When you do, will you no longer work to improve your skills? Katie Ledecky won four gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics. But instead of hanging her swim cap on being a “good” swimmer, she is constantly striving to be better, breaking even her own world records. I first learned how this way of thinking affects the pursuit of happiness from psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, who articulates this mindset in his aptly named book Happier:
“ ‘Am I happy?’ is a closed question that suggests a binary approach to the pursuit of the good life: we are either happy or we are not. . . . We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, ‘How can I become happier?’ This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.” (14)
When my students ask me what they need to be happy, I tell them the first thing they need is a different way of asking the question. At any given point, circumstances or conditions may be beyond our control.
By asking what we can do to become happier, we place our attention on those aspects of life that are in our control, which ultimately can move us forward on the happiness continuum.
Together these two premises — that positive psychology is not about being happy all the time, and that it’s not even about being “happy” — provide a necessary foundation. Once we stop trying to be “happy,” real strategies for strengthening our well-being become attainable.
(1) Snyder, T.D. & Dillow, S.A. (2015). Digest of Education Statistics 2013 (NCES 2015–011). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
(2)Kim-Prieto, C., Diener, E., Tamir, M., Scollon, C.N., & Diener, M., “Integrating the Diverse Definitions of Happiness: A Time- Sequential Framework of Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of Happiness Studies (2005) 6 (3) 261– 300.
(3)Conklin, J.E. (2008). Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.
(4) 4. Ibid., 3.
(6) Twenge, J.M., Gentile, B., DeWall, N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D.R., “Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology among Young Americans, 1938–2007: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI,” Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010): 145–154.
(7) QuickStats: Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15–19 Years, by Sex — United States, 1975–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 66 (2017): 816.
(8) National Alliance on Mental Illness (2012). College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/collegesurvey.
(9) Wang, S.S., “Is Happiness Overrated?” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2011. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704893604576200471545379388.
(10) Wilson, C., “Final Word: Happiness Is Overrated. You Can Bank on It,” USA Today, April 10, 2012. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/columnist/finalword/story/2012‑04‑10/final-word-happiness-overrated-craig-wilson/54160464/1.
(11) Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Grove Press.
(12) Ehrenreich, B. (2011). Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
(13) Kirkey, S., “Refute of Happiness: How Our Obsession with Positivity Is Making Us Miserable — and Insufferable,” National Post, October 16, 2015.Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/life/refute‑of‑happiness-how-our-obsession-with-positivity‑is‑making‑us‑miserable-and-insufferable?lsa=95d7-515e.
(14) Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw-Hill.