How to Be Happy (2/2): Why American Self-Help Backfires

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Today we’re going to be talking about how to be happier. 

Researchers studied the questions “Does trying to be happy actually work? And if you decide to consciously work on being happier, would you actually be happier down the road?” And they asked this question in four different countries, and the results were really fascinating. 

The researchers found that if you tried to be happier in the United States, you actually felt worse. In Germany it had a mixed effect, but in Russia, Taiwan, and Japan, trying to be happier actually worked. 

So why would that be? The researchers believe it’s due to the cultural difference between the East and the West. 

Happiness in Eastern vs Western Culture

So in the West — in America, for example — we’re very individualistic. We say, “Oh, be a rebel. You do you.” We proclaim freedom from tyranny but also from dependence on a connection to other people. We’re lonelier than we’ve ever been. People have less friends than ever. 

But in the East, the culture is more about the group as a whole. So the cultural values say, “Be a team player. Be harmonious. We are all connected. You belong here.” And happiness and success is seen as a group effort. It’s a family effort. 

So as Americans I think it can be really hard to see through the individualistic culture that we’re swimming in. It colors the way we see everything and the way we think and the way we interact. And so this study found that when people in America or Britain try to be happier, they do it for themselves, for their own ego, because they think that’s how it works. 

And you’ll see these messages all over the internet self-help world world. They say things like, “You deserve to feel good. Do self-care. Set boundaries. Withdraw.” 

And then if you want to feel happy, you get stuff for yourself. You buy yourself something. You try to achieve some individual accomplishments so you can feel good about yourselves. And sometimes this message of, like, you accomplish something is specifically about being better than others, which is inherently isolating and divisive. 

But in eastern cultures, if you intentionally try to be happier, on average people do something different. They tried to make things better for their group. 

So when people in Japan or Taiwan or Russia tried to be happier, they’d spend time with friends and family. They’d try to make the people they care about feel good. Or they’d help others who were in need. And it worked. 

Inward-Focused vs Outward-Focused Happiness

So one of the researchers, Brett Ford, said “The more you think happiness is a social thing, the better off you are.” And in my opinion, this is one reason why western self-help can backfire — because it feeds more isolation, more self-focus, more inward thinking, and that leaves us more and more trapped and isolated in the echo chamber of our minds. 

Johan Hari, the author of Lost Connections, said, “Until I learned this, when I felt depression and anxiety start to set in, I felt a panicked need to keep my head above water, so I would try to do something for myself. 

“I would buy something or watch a movie I like or read a book I like or talk to a friend about my distress. It was an attempt to treat the isolated self, and it didn’t work very often. In fact, these acts were often the start of a deeper slide. 

“But once I knew Brett’s research, I saw the error I’d been making. So now when I feel myself starting to slide down, I don’t do something for myself; I try to do something for someone else. 

“I go to see a friend, and I try to focus very hard on how they’re feeling and on making them feel better. I try to do something for my network, for my group, or even try to help strangers who look distressed. 

“I’ve learned something I couldn’t have thought was possible at the start: even if you are in pain, you can almost always make someone else feel a little bit better. Or I would try to channel it into more overt, political actions to make society better. 

“When I applied this technique, I realized that often — but not always — it stopped the slide downward. It worked much more effectively than trying to build myself up alone.” 

Now, I gotta clarify something really quick: some people with depression, they’re never thinking of themselves. They’re very selfless, but in a way that crushes themselves. 

They put themselves down. They’re always submitting or stuffing their own thoughts or needs or desires. And this is a pseudo-connection. It’s not true closeness, but rather it’s a form of hiding and withdrawal. 

So even if on the surface it seems nice, this is not what I’m talking about. These people would benefit from more real connection, from reaching out for support, asking for help, hugging, mutual connections — not this one-sided, self-deprecating kind of ickiness.

How can you be happier?

Real happiness comes from real connection. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. So here are some examples of how you can improve your connections and find happiness with others. 

Make some food for someone. Plan in real quality time with a family member. Hug someone. Schedule in some social time. 

And this can be really hard if you’re depressed. You think no one wants to be around you or you think it’s too exhausting to be around others. But if you set a small goal and work towards it, your efforts will be rewarded. So just, like, put something on the calendar: “I’m gonna go hang out with such and such on this day.” If you’re invited to an outing, make yourself go. Stop saying no to things like that. 

You can invite a friend over to share a meal. Spend some time with loving family members. You could try to think of a nice gift to give someone. It doesn’t have to be expensive. You could write someone a note of appreciation. 

Another nice thing you can do is to leave a positive review for a business you like or sincerely thank service staff at the store or the restaurant. 

I also really love the Good News Channel and Upworthy. I really decrease the amount of news I’m watching, and I really like to follow these channels that highlight the good things that people are doing for each other in the world. 

Here’s another one: say something really kind to someone on social media or, even better, in person. 

Find a cause you care about, and work with others to accomplish it. And I get it: this requires purpose and meaning and a group of like-minded people, and this can feel overwhelming. But you can just start with baby steps. 

So you could start by writing out some things that really matter to you. Like, what do you get really excited about? What do you care about? Is there a cause out there that makes you really mad? What are your values? 

So after you figure out what you care about, then you can check for groups in your area to do this. So in the U.S. there’s the United Way and there are meetup groups. You could also check out churches or a local political group, even a local Dungeons and Dragons group. You could go to an art night or a recipe night.

There are just so many opportunities to get involved doing things you care about, and these can really help you get more connected with other people, do good in the world, and also, you know, maybe feel happier. 

So for example, you could volunteer at a local school to read to the kids. Or you could volunteer to help ESL speakers learn a new language. Like there’s just so many ways you can strengthen your connections and to do good in the world and foster true happiness. 

I would just say, don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Just plan one little thing you’re gonna do. 

I hope this helps you shift your thinking a little. When you want to feel happier, stop focusing inward. Find a way to build stronger connections. Do things with and for other people. And get engaged in a cause that matters. 

I’d love to hear your ideas on what helps you to connect with other people in an uplifting way. So go ahead and leave those in the comments below. 

Choose one thing to try this week and download my free habit tracker to help you start taking steps to be happier. 

Thank you for reading, and take care.

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