We’re a happy-obsessed culture.
I admit—I often can’t resist a magazine article that promises it will deliver the secret to happiness in a few hundred words. Or a blog post that offers five things I can do right then to “find joy.”
Most of the time, I read these posts when I’m feeling sad or worried. And in those moments, consuming advice about how to be happy can offer a quick boost—an almost sugar high—to my system. But it’s not long after the article is put away and I’m going about my day that I typically feel even more anxious or worried about not being happy than I was before.
Turns out, there’s research that shows that pursuing happiness can make people feel much worse. In short, it leaves us disappointed about what we don’t have, rather than grateful for the things that we do.
So, if you’re having a bad day, here are a few things that may be healthier than reading about happiness.
See a Sad Movie
My senior year of high school, I was so stressed out about studying for my SATs and getting into college that I shut down completely and started crying for hours one afternoon. It wasn’t until my family dragged me to the movies to see a bummer of a film called The Spitfire Grill that I remember thinking: The next time I feel terrible, I have to go to the movies.
My future problems weren’t solved by films, of course, but it turns out that getting teary-eyed in a sad movie might actually be a way to snap out of a funk.
A recent study published in Communication Research found that tragic movies can offer a happiness boost because they remind us of what we should be grateful for. "People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings," says Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, the survey’s leader.
Sometimes, it seems, truth isn’t quite as awful as fiction—and that can give us tremendous solace. So, instead of turning towards comedy or cheerful entertainment when you’re feeling down, lean into your sadder moments and choose something more melancholy.
Get Off Facebook
When I’m feeling particularly down, anxious, or worried, nothing is as frustrating to me as those wall posts that say things like, “I’m so grateful for my wonderful life!” or, “Just wanted to take a moment to say how happy I am to be alive!”
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge people and their happy status updates, but when I’m having a tough day, logging onto Facebook and scrolling through a curated newsfeed of the best moments of everyone I know doesn’t bring me joy. It makes me feel bad about not being happy.
And I’m not the only one affected by Facebook in this way—a recent study shows that browsing through people’s photos (most of which are of smiling, cheerful people), make us believe that everyone around us is happier than we are. At times of internal turmoil, it seems that the best thing to do is not log in.
Help Someone Less Fortunate
You’ve heard this one before, but it’s worth repeating: Focusing on helping someone else—even a small act of kindness or generosity—will benefit you as much as the individual you are helping.
Research shows that self-reported happiness is much higher in individuals who volunteer, regardless of their socioeconomic status. So, rather than comparing ourselves to those who are more “fortunate”—celebrities, the wealthy, the otherwise glamorous—which, isn’t doing any good, we should be focused on helping those who have less than we do.
There are ways to travel while volunteering, but more local approaches to altruism like mentoring—or in the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, volunteering at your local relief organization like the local Red Cross Chapter—are an even easier path to having a more fulfilled worldview and being a better citizen.
Happiness books will continue to earn places on my bookshelves, but I’ve learned to read them when I’m feeling good. When I’m down, I try to accept the fact that I’m sad, and I think this is a good approach. After all, very often, the minute we stop looking for something, we find it.