THE BLOG
05/31/2016 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Why Striving for Happiness Is Not Selfish

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Hands up if you like cheesy quotes! Something along the lines of "Happiness never goes out of style," or "Don't worry, be happy." They sound and look great on posters, mugs and Pinterest walls, and are usually about passions, following your dreams or doing what makes you happy.

But who really follows their advice? Who actually turns their life upside down to strive for happiness above all else? Reading and sharing these quotes on Facebook is fine, but actually following their message would be crazy, right? Wouldn't that be completely selfish?

Sadly, for many of us, happiness has been pushed down the priorities list. It's more important to be sensible, have a good career, and keep up with the Joneses. Happiness has become a luxury reserved for vacations or kids.

After all, kids are allowed to be happy, and they're supposed to be. Most parents want nothing more for their kids than to find their dream jobs, dream partners and to live long and happy lives. However, most adults wouldn't describe themselves or their lives as particularly happy. So where did our childhood dreams go astray? At what point did happiness stop being a priority, the ultimate goal even, and become something seen as selfish?

When I grow up I want to be...

For many of us, it starts going downhill when we start choosing our career path. When kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, they pick fun jobs, like a ballerina, fireman, or astronaut. Most parents would be horrified if their three-year-old announced their ambition to be an accountant or analyst. But, somewhere between elementary school and high-school graduation, the focus shifts from what makes us happy, to doing the grown-up thing.

Following your passions won't pay the bills, so pick a sensible major, pursue a stable, well-paid career (no matter how boring), get a mortgage and save for retirement. All before you're even legally allowed to order a beer. Happiness just gets lost along the way.

Which well-respected accountant with a family would leave his stable job to pursue a career as a magician? What single mom would take her kids out of school for a year to travel around the world? It's easy to see why adults feel guilty for deciding to follow their dreams; for putting happiness first. People like the accountant-turned-magician and globetrotting mom are often condemned as irresponsible. We are programmed to put safety and stability first - wouldn't only selfish people value their own happiness more.

In reality, however, the opposite might be true, and here's why:

Happiness myths

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin says one of the biggest myths surrounding happiness is that in this "terrible" world, it is only achieved by being selfish, and that happy people are uninterested in others' lives and the world around them. Both assumptions are wrong.

To think that happiness has to take a backseat in a world riddled with disasters, terrorist attacks and crashing economies, is also wrong. No, the world isn't a perfect place, but preventing yourself from being happy won't make it better for anyone else. Rubin says that, just as not eating your own dinner won't help a starving child, being unhappy won't make anyone else happier.

On the contrary, studies have shown that happy people are more inclined to help those around them, donate more to charity and do more volunteer work. Think about it, if you're in a great place in your life and aren't worried about your own problems, you'll have much more patience for listening to and helping others.

Happiness is contagious

It even goes one step further; a Harvard study found that the ripple effect of happiness spreads to people up to three degrees of separation from you (that's already half way to Kevin Bacon). Being happy will actually make others around you happier too. This means your good mood and positive spirit have an impact on a whole bunch of people's lives, not just those immediately around you.

It's a classic chicken-egg situation: you feel happier by making others happy, and the best way to make others happy is to be happy yourself.

You're only as old as you feel

It's another popular cheesy quote, but studies show that there might be truth to it.
Researchers have found that happy people are healthier than their unhappy peers. Happiness can have as much influence on your overall health as your smoking habit! Furthermore, it can impact your immune system, with happy people less prone to catching a cold and more likely to have milder symptoms.

So, perhaps being happy isn't selfish at all? Maybe it's just common sense and benefits ourselves, others and society. Or maybe we just need to reassess the stigma around the word selfish. Being selfish has negative connotations, but if it just means making your needs and wellbeing a priority, it's surely no bad thing.

So how do you become a happier person?

Well, how long is a piece of string? While it obviously varies from person to person, there are a few things that have been proven to increase overall happiness.

Meditating regularly is one of the easiest solutions. It's ok for you to take some time for yourself every day, it doesn't mean you have less time to take care of your family or friends or have to neglect other things. Just 10-30 minutes of meditation have been shown to improve happiness.

Investing your time and money in experiences rather than material possessions has also been shown to make people happier, and definitely isn't selfish. So, rather than buying expensive objects for yourself or others, go out for a day trip to a nearby lake, visit a new exhibition or treat yourself to a meal. New experiences will make you happy and create memories that last.

Last, but not least, you must follow your dreams. Even if others don't understand them or judge you for making them a priority, your happiness is not something you should feel guilty about.

Now, over to you, have you been putting your own happiness on the back burner? Have you tried paying more attention to what makes you happy? What impact has it had on others around you? Please share in the comments!

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