Why you should stop trying to be happy
AUSTRALIANS are obsessed with being happy.
We lap up the latest books, podcasts and apps from the billion-dollar wellness industry, share images of our best filtered selves on social media, and organise our lives around the goal of bliss.
But this preoccupation with being happy is making us miserable, experts warn.
Author and journalist Jill Stark, whose new book Happy Never After explores modern society's "fairytale syndrome", said people have come to believe that sadness is abnormal and something to fear.
"These days, people try to desperately numb out the very normal messiness of life," Stark told news.com.au.
"We airbrush out the messy parts of our lives and only show the world the glossy, curated highlights reel to people. It can make you feel abnormal and like an outsider if you're not happy."
In analysis for Psychology Today, Dr Todd Kashan said the more importance placed on being happy, the unhappier and more depressed people become.
"The pressure to be happy makes people less happy," Dr Kashan said. "Organising your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually being happy."
Research found those who place a significantly high level of importance on being happy experienced 50 per cent less positive emotions and were 35 per cent less satisfied with life than their peers.
While it's not entirely to blame, Stark believes the proliferation of social media has played a major role in our misery.
"It's not all about social media but it's certainly exacerbated the feeling that everyone else is happy except for you," she said. "It's like we're in a Truman Show-style production of our own lives."
The problem with this faux happiness is when people compare their lives to what they see in their Instagram feeds.
Behavioural psychologist Dr Tim Sharp said this rampant social comparison is having a negative impact on general wellbeing.
"If we compare our 'bloopers', the warts and all realities of our messy lives, with other people's 'highlight reels', we're bound to feel underwhelmed or worse - worthless and hopeless," Dr Sharp said.
A recent study in the United Kingdom surveyed 1500 young people and found social media was as addictive as cigarettes among young cohorts.
Instagram usage was also associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in people aged 14 to 24.
In her book, Stark relives one of the darkest chapters of her life, which occurred when she was at the top of her game. She had a great job, a happy relationship, lots of friends and had just released a best-selling book, but she was desperately unhappy.
"It was meant to be my happy ever after, all of the things that if I achieved were supposed to make me happy, but I got there and I just fell apart," Stark recalled.
Even after suffering quite a serious breakdown, she still found herself filtering the pain away.
"I went to a friend's house near the beach and I took this picture of myself on the beach in a bikini looking very serene and put it up on social media. But the reality was that I was a mess. I was still curating this image of perfection."
Psychologist Dr Marny Lishman said people only want to show the best of themselves, even if they're not happy, rather than the reality of a situation.
"We have to express all of ourselves - light and dark - in order to be healthy individuals," Dr Lishman said. "We shouldn't be comparing ourselves to others and their portrayal of themselves on social media."
She has observed a phenomenon on social media, which she's dubbed the "beautiful mess effect", where people admire vulnerability in others but see it as a weakness in themselves.
"It's the way we take on a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do others," Dr Lishman said.
Despite significant progress in reducing the stigma of mental illness, Stark said people still felt enormous pressure to "numb out the messiness of life".
"We all struggle, we all have human frailties and we all grapple with what it means to be happy," she told news.com.au.
"I think if we were all honest about the human condition and what it looks like, we'd be much more comfortable with how we really feel.
"We need to stop chasing the elusive goal and be more accepting of the richness life, which is all kinds of emotions. I think we should be on a quest for wholeness, for completeness."
Stark hopes her book helps people realise that "it's OK to not be OK" and that we should embrace the imperfect parts of ourselves.
"The premise of this book is accepting life in all its messiness. It's not to say that we should be miserable all the time but that unhappiness is part of life.
"We're all a bit mad. There's no such thing as normal."