A recent study in Depression and Anxiety found that social pressure to be happy can lead to increased levels of depression.
Photo by Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
"We're really starting to see that the culture and the social environment we're living in is important for determining our level of depression and how we respond to negative events," said Brock Bastian, associate professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.
Depression is more common in Western countries such as Australia than it is in the East, where people are more likely to recognise the relationship between positive and negative emotions. People aren't happier in the East, per se, but they are less depressed.
"Depression is an epidemic," Bastian said. "If it's more prevalent in some cultures than others, we have to look outside individual biology to understand how these cultural factors can be feeding into making us depressed."
Conducted by Bastian and other researchers, the study examined the relationship between social expectations of happiness and depressive symptoms. It found that the more someone felt pressured to be happy, the more depressive symptoms they experienced.
Another study by Bastian showed that people who felt social pressure to be happy also experienced more rumination after failure. Moving past failure is important because ruminating too much can lead depression.
"There has been a shift to differentially valuing positive and negative emotions," Bastian said. "We tend to value positive emotions much more. We see negative emotion as not much use to us."
Luckily, there are many ways that we can change our perceptions to focus less on trying to be happy.
Be Aware of Social Influences
"We don't often realise how much happiness is being pushed down our throats," Bastian said. "Anytime you see an advertisement, you see people who are happy. Advertisers don't sell their product with negative faces. They push a message that if we work harder and earn more and buy more stuff, we're going to be as happy as the people in the advertisements." By acknowledging these influences, we can better control how we respond to them.
When using social media, it's also important to remember that other people tend to present an idealised picture of their lives rather than representing the whole story. "We're surrounded by this constant pressure to be happy, and we think other people must have achieved this because we see it around us but everyone experiences negative feelings," Bastian said.
Change The Conversation
It might make sense to focus on the positive aspects of negative situations, but that can actually backfire. There are many benefits to being negative, including building stronger and more authentic relationships.
"People connect much more sharing negative information," said Bastian. "It forms bonds between people in a way that sharing positive information can't. Don't try to always frame it in a positive way. Be authentic and real about that." Obviously being negative all the time isn't good, but it's important to be honest about your feelings.
Pursue Goals That Challenge You
Instead of focusing on being happy, you should set goals that give you a sense of purpose. "A happy life often involves experiencing negative events," Bastian said. "We need to challenge ourselves; we often need to do things which are uncomfortable or difficult. As a result, we experience happiness, but the result isn't just positive emotionality." Like working out, the process of achieving a goal requires struggle but results in a sense of fulfilment.
To advance toward your goals, you should start by focusing on a few of them and breaking them apart into smaller, more tangible goals. There are even apps to help you stay on track. Most importantly, though, you should enjoy the process of working towards something.
Focus on Other People in Relationships
Whom you surround yourself with has a huge impact on your well-being. Sometimes relationships pass their expiration dates, but you can often improve your relationships by adjusting your approach to them.
Instead of evaluating relationships based on how happy they make you feel, focus on the other person. Relationships shouldn't be self-serving. "When we're focused on happiness as a goal, that makes our relationships very self-focused," Bastian said. "That's a shallow reason for having a relationship in the first place."
Sacrifice and selflessness are what lead to better, more fulfilling relationships, even when they cause discomfort. "Understanding what we can offer other people is a really important pathway for finding meaningful relationships with people. And that often involves going out of our way and doing things you don't want to do."
On social media, it's easy to compare ourselves to others and to obsess over the number of likes a post gets. Instead, we can use social media positively to build deeper relationships with others.
"We can connect with people in really authentic ways, but we also need to foster these connections locally as well as globally," commented Bastian. "Social media can be helpful in maintaining communication."
Common advice on happiness says to be positive, but trying too hard can lead to more distress. Instead, accept your sadness and allow yourself to be sad when you are. There are many therapeutic activities people can do to channel their sadness such as listening to sad music and/or crying.
While you shouldn't ditch your gratitude journal, you also shouldn't ignore your negative feelings. "Sometimes we don't feel grateful. Sometimes we don't feel positive about ourselves, and it's important to embrace that as much as it is to embrace gratitude." Plus, being in a bad mood has many benefits, such as improving recall memory.