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2 Words to Avoid When Seeking Happiness

How to lean into joy that’s authentic, self-supporting and real.

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Can you “do happiness wrong?” Psychologists and philosophers have pondered this question for ages, both in the science lab and in community settings from houses of worship to the dinner table.

If there is a consensus, it’s this: happiness exists on a spectrum. Its pursuit can greatly enrich life or ironically backfire, sabotaging inner peace and a sense of well-being.

One recent study summarized the harmful version of happiness-seeking in two words: “I should…” I’ve used them way too many times in my own self-talk conversations—and maybe you have as well.

According to Murat Yildirim and John Maltby, the study’s authors, statements that are anchored in some distant, objective definition of happiness—things you “should,” “must” or “ought to” do in order to achieve a joyful life—can be so self-sabotaging that researchers refer to them as “irrational happiness beliefs.”

And the data tells the story: participants in the study who agreed with statements like, “I should always be happy in all aspects of my life” were less likely to report actually feeling happy at any sustainable level.

It might sound obvious that absolutist, rigid standards for happiness are a setup for failure. But listen to your own inner monologue. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised at how often you’re “should,” “must” and “ought to”-ing yourself. 

Let the study’s finding encourage you to shift your thinking. Think about or write down your “I should” statements and spend a few minutes teasing apart what are actual attainable goals that serve your happiness and what is an externally-driven standard that neither you nor anyone else could ever hope to achieve.

Through this process of interrupting happiness-sabotaging thought patterns, you’ll learn that being happy is connected to things that are true, real and present in your life today.

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