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Why trying to be happy all the time is making us ill

Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren, medical director of Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital in Kent and its Wellbeing Centres in London, says:

“In recent years, there has been a shift within society whereby happiness is valued above everything else.

Across Instagram and social media, we are seeing constant posts about being happy, or, to use that old cliché, “turning that frown upside down”. However, the truth is that only by experiencing things that make us stressed or unhappy can we really know the difference that happiness brings.

Happiness is good for our mental health but its pursuit, forsaking all other things, is not.

Some stress is good for people and some unhappiness is inevitable. Both stress and unhappiness can help us empathise with others, which is what defines us as humans and enables us to grow as individuals.

Harvard research estimates that 40% of people's happiness comes from the choices they make – to ‘let go’ of things they can’t change, stay connected with others, ‘buy time and not things’. It’s no surprise that older people tend to be happier (these are people not on Instagram).

In his bestselling book Stand Firm; Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Svend Brinkmann, a Danish psychology professor, says forcing ourselves to be happy all the time could leave us emotionally stunted.

‘I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it because that’s how we understand the world,’ he says.

Without the bad things in life you’d never appreciate the good, and it’s fine to feel sad, angry, guilty, ashamed - and happy too. Stress is not altogether bad for us. It’s also in the eye of the beholder. One man’s thrill and stimulation is another man’s terror. The most dramatic example is our response to the roller coaster. What makes the same situation scary or exciting is how we think about it, how we appraise it. If we think we can deal with it, it will be exciting. If we think we cannot, then it will be scary. These assessments are fast and automatic, but not fixed. They can be altered with psychological help and practice.

So yes, people generally like to feel happy, but achieving a state of happiness takes time and effort. Ironically researchers in the US and Canada have found that people who pursue happiness often feel like they do not have enough time in the day, and this, paradoxically, makes them feel unhappy. Feeling pressed for time makes people less willing to spend time helping others or volunteering, which would make them happy. We should worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, researchers said.

During my many years of practice as an adult psychiatrist at the Priory, I would advocate maintaining good mental health – and acquiring resilience - over the constant pursuit of happiness. That will help a person cope with the many things life throws at them – the happy and the less so.


Notes to editors

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About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, stress, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

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