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Time: 6 Surprising Things You Think Are Making You Happy—But Are Doing the Opposite

From Time: Fat salaries and corporate success aren’t the gateways to happiness they’re cracked up to be. But it makes sense that we might think they are. “We’re fed such an incredibly dense diet of popular media and marketing that shapes our understanding of happiness in a way that actually gets in the way of it,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “I think we as a society, particularly in the West, have a bit of an illusion about where happiness comes from and how to get more of it.” Researchers have long sought to sort fact from fiction when it comes to pinpointing what increases happiness. Here are six surprising things we often think are making us happy—but that might actually be doing the opposite.

Dodging your negative emotions

Being happy is a lofty goal. Squashing negative emotions like anger, fear, and resentment is surely a step in the right direction, right? It turns out the opposite is true—and experts say that’s the No. 1 thing most people get wrong about the pursuit of happiness. “We have the mistaken idea that a happy, meaningful life means feeling good all the time and avoiding our negative emotions,” says Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University. “But the evidence suggests that suppressing our negative emotions can be a recipe for making those emotions worse.” Research has concluded that suppressing negative emotions is a “barrier to good health.” One study suggests bottling up emotions like frustration or disgust can make people more aggressive; another indicates that the habit can lead to lower social support and fewer close relationships. Additional research has linked suppressing emotions to an increased risk of early death from any cause. It’s much healthier to reframe how we think about happiness, Simon-Thomas says, and to accept that it includes the full spectrum of emotions. Remind yourself that when you’re scrolling past beaming faces on social media, you’re only seeing part of the story, and it’s not possible or healthy for anyone to constantly be happy. Once we redefine what happiness means, “there’s a way to relate to our unpleasant emotions that’s more restorative—more growth- and learning-oriented,” Simon-Thomas notes. It’s important to practice self-compassion, and to recognize that when we feel bad, the answer isn’t to stifle those emotions or berate ourselves. “Rather, we need to understand what they’re for,” she says. Practicing mindfulness can help some people figure out how to acknowledge and cope with difficult emotions in a healthy way, as can a specific framework called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. The approach helps teach people to accept their inner emotions instead of avoiding them.

Living in a city

Some of the great American cultural icons—from Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z—have waxed poetic about life in metropolitan areas like New York. But waking up in a city that never sleeps isn’t necessarily good for inner peace. Research has found that urban living often translates to stress, anxiety, and plain old unhappiness. According to one study, people who resided in cities were 21% more likely than those in rural areas to experience an anxiety disorder, and 39% more likely to have a mood disorder like major depression. In another study, those based in areas with lots of road noise were 25% more likely to report depression symptoms than people living in quiet neighborhoods. (One potential reason: Noise can interrupt sleep, which is a crucial component of mental health.) Research has linked simply being in the presence of high-rise buildings to worse moods and feelings of powerlessness. One reason why cities have these impacts is that our brains are only wired to live in social groups of about 150 people, says Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, who studies how natural and built places affect emotion and physiology. Of course, most places have a bigger population than that—but in a smaller town, you won’t pass all of them on the street during your morning commute. “Once the size of our group exceeds that, we’re basically in a situation where we’re living among strangers, and that is cognitively and emotionally taxing,” he says. Feeling crowded in a high-density area can, for example, lead to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Plus, “people struggle mentally in situations where they don’t feel in control over their circumstances,” which is common in cities—there’s nothing you can do to get the taxis to stop honking or to clear a crowded sidewalk. Fortunately, if you’re a city-dweller and plan to remain one, there are ways to protect your mental health. Even brief exposures to natural areas like urban parks can help, Ellard says, as can trading a bus commute for a walk or bike ride. And investing in black-out curtains and a white-noise machine can help improve sleep quality in loud, bright neighborhoods.

Having tons of free time

Researchers have long known that having enough discretionary time is crucial for wellbeing—but it turns out that having too much free time may be almost as bad as having too little. According to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, wellbeing increases in correlation with free time, but only to a certain extent. The benefits level off after about two hours, and decline around five hours of free time per day. “What we found is that if you have a lot of discretionary time, you’re not necessarily happier, and in some cases, you’re actually less happy,” says study author Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The reason for that is you don’t feel like you’re productive anymore, and you feel like you lack purpose and meaning.” Still, how you spend your free time matters. When people with more than five hours spent it with others—or felt like they were passing it in a productive, meaningful way—they didn’t experience a drop in well-being. Some of the activities that helped participants feel like they were optimizing their time included exercising, participating in group activities, and pursuing a hobby like gardening or studying a new language. Scrolling through social media or using the computer, on the other hand, made people feel less happy about how they’d spent their free time. Read more at Time.