Take one look at your Instagram feed and you'll see it: an abundance of smiling faces and enviable activities. Turn on the TV, open a magazine, glance at a billboard, and the results are the same. From ear-to-ear grins to endless laughter, it's like the whole world is happy all the time.
And yet that doesn't add up. Whether it's the sense that it all seems too good to be true, or the fact that more than 7 percent of the U.S. population is depressed and more than 27 percent of Americans have sought mental health therapy, something about this joyful frenzy seems off. Maybe you've reassured yourself intuitively that no one can be that happy all the time. If so, you'd be right.
The Pressure to Be Happy
Living in a world where there's an overemphasis on being happy 24/7 can actually have just the opposite effect. "If you're too focused on becoming happier, it's going to backfire," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor and author of The How of Happiness.
She compares monitoring your happiness to monitoring weight loss: You shouldn't obsess about it daily, because there could be small changes from one day to the next. Plus, researchers now think some element of happiness is likely out of your control and left up to your genes. Genes, Economics, and Happiness. De Neve, JE, Christakis, NA, Fowler, JH, et al. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics. 2012 Nov;5(4). You know one friend who's just relentlessly happier than everyone else? That could be why.
But if your genes leave you in the "glass half-empty" side of the spectrum, take heart. There’s a whole school of thought called defensive pessimism that focuses on the upside of more negative thinking. It's based on the idea that setting low expectations and then specifically preparing for what could go wrong might actually lead to better performance and personal growth. The positive psychology of negative thinking. Norem JK, Chang EC. Journal of clinical psychology, 2002, Oct.;58(9):0021-9762.
"People's happiness levels are just different from each other; and that's OK," says Alex Korb, Ph.D., a researcher at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Some people's brains respond more to positive events than negative ones, and vice versa. As a result, some people might just be happier—all the time.
Lyubomirsky also suggested picturing happiness on a scale of one to 10. Some people might naturally fall in the eight to 10 range, while you might be more of a six to eight. It doesn't mean you can't get your "happiness level" up, but it may be more natural for you to be more mellow. Lyubomirsky stressed that the important thing was to focus on your own level of happiness—and not compare it to others. Think of it like a runner focusing on his personal best: Setting a personal standard and concentrating on that may lead to greater happiness than allowing yourself to be detracted by others' lives.
However, if you're constantly feeling down about your life, know there is a difference between a "mediocre" level of happiness and actually being depressed. Feeling sad, anxious, or empty for more than a few days could be a sign that you should seek more serious help.
No Such Thing as "Bad" Emotions
"There's this idea out there that our emotions are 'positive' or 'negative,' [but] I think all of our emotions are normal and adaptive and have a purpose or function," says William Breen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. "To use them all means we are living a rich, fulfilling life."
But even if you know you should use all of your emotions, it still feels like one gets priority above the rest. And that expectation of constant happiness is part of the problem.
"If you have an expectation that you should always be happy right now, then any moment of not being happy is sort of deeply dissatisfying and frustrating," says Korb. Furthermore, all those laughter-filled ads, TV shows, and social media posts are changing our expectation of happiness. And when those high expectations don't match up with out reality, we find ourselves feeling down.
The key to getting out of the rut? Redefining your own expectations and not allowing your happiness to be dependent on the forces you can't control. "There’s not a day that you just wake up and say, 'I've got it!,'" says Breen. "It's an ongoing process. We're going to feel down and feel sad and cry—and that's meaningful and important.”
A Comparison That Needs to Stop
Another reason your feelings don't always jive with the world around you: You're comparing apples and oranges.
Whether you're looking at people smiling on TV or in a magazine, you're comparing your inner feelings to the way someone appears to be feeling on the outside.
"Human social connection is very complex. We are very attuned to the authenticity of other people's emotions," says Korb. "We have a trigger if someone is being inauthentic and that can have a jarring effect." So if browsing glamorous Instagram photos has left you feeling sort of empty, it could be that intuitive trigger.
Of course, we're all guilty of posting our coolest moments on social media. But there's a reason not everything is eye roll-inducing. Korb says feeling genuinely connected to others can have a huge impact on our happiness. Have a BFF you rarely speak to, but thinking of her always make you smile? Bingo. That's connectedness.
However, if your social feeds are crammed with people you vaguely know—or worse, if you feel a friend only posts updates to show off—this prompts that "inauthentic trigger." And as disconnectedness increases, says Korb, so does our frustration and annoyance.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to get happier. While experts admit technology and social media has its place, many suggest occasionally unplugging as a way to increase happiness.
"Step back and have a conversation with the people right around you, says Breen. "Technology has a wonderful role in our lives, but human connection is important."
Korb also suggested focusing on the parts of your life you're grateful for and setting up long-term goals so that small, daily discouragements don't seem so critical. "Have a sense of purpose—whether it's related to the people you feel connected to, a cause, your work, or your religion," says Korb. That guiding force can help mitigate immediate emotional fluctations (like getting bummed out while checking out Instagram and Facebook).
The Bottom Line
You've heard it before, but it's true: Don't believe everything you see on TV (or on social media or in magazines). Ecstatic-dancing-at-Coachella-level happiness is likely impossible for anyone to sustain. So know that it's OK to feel down at times. After all, frustration, anger, sadness, and all of your other emotions are part of a normal, satisfying life.