• Hazelden Renewal Center

Cultural Myths That Undermine Our Happiness and Well-being

Myths are metaphoric stories that can inspire or demean us. Believing in magical elves in forests may make our imaginations soar; thinking that people with dark skin are inferior to us only devalues us. The most destructive myths are those that operate in our lives while remaining unexamined. They do bad things to us without our being aware of them, and surreptitiously undermine our well-being. This is especially true when other people also believe the same myths as part of a cultural ethos and we just go along with the crowd.

In fact the longer I’ve lived the more I believe many of us today still are very good people, but are not critical thinkers. We lack self-reflection and easily fall under the spell of cultural misguidance. Getting duped into foolishness turns us into lesser versions of ourselves. If you’ve ever watched the news or read the newspaper and said, “What in the world could they be thinking!?” you know exactly what I mean.

Why do harmful myths stay under our radar?

Most of us are so challenged by the stresses of modern living, the last thing we want to think about is how misguided or unrealistic our thinking really is. Some of us have an exaggerated view of how much we know about life. We think we are wise when the reality may be otherwise. As a culture we are technologically smart but we are less than adequate when it comes to self-awareness and personal relationships. We prefer staring at screens than reading a good book or getting into a live discussion group. Many of us live up in our heads. Some of us may even prefer being misguided in order to fit in with other people who also hold the same beliefs. As Sheldon Kopp, the famous psychoanalyst said, “We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Because we feel too stressed to reflect on our own beliefs and would rather tune out the emotional limitations of our beliefs, we opt to let our doubts stay under the radar. Most of us feel a need to conform to the general opinion. To not do so makes us feel disloyal. Who wants to be seen as the odd person out?

The pressure to conform has never been more urgent since the obsession with social media has enveloped our lives. The rise in social media in the last 10 years leaves many of us more worried about what other people think than what we think. We worry more about conforming to others than examining and living up to our own standards. Rare is the person these days who thinks for himself and has real integrity. This “safety in numbers” mentality prompts us to put our heads in the sand and allows destructive cultural myths to stay unrecognized. Unfortunately what lies hidden is still very much alive within us, and likely diminishes our well being and makes us less likable, and less compassionate.

Common Harmful Myths in Today’s Culture

“The only happiness that matters is my own and my family’s. I have no responsibility to care for others.”

We live in a culture where pursuing well-being and happiness is a private matter and appears to have little to do with other people’s needs, even to the extent of being oblivious to people outside of our own little world. If we can’t see the suffering in the world, then there is a lot less to worry about. Caring for unfortunate people may feel burdensome to us, especially when there seems no end to the suffering around us. While it is true that we are each responsible for our own happiness we also need others to be happy because we are social creatures. Thus we are also responsible to help others, as their happiness is our own. We are our brother’s keeper whether we like it or not. No man is an island and we are all affected greatly by the suffering around us, even if we are oblivious to it. We may go on for an extended period of time embracing our individualism and turning a cold shoulder to others, but eventually it becomes clear just how much we need others and how much we have already relied on others in our lives to be as successful as we are. We all live in an invisible web of other people’s lives.

In fact the greatest happiness in our life will not be our wealth and success but the feeling that our life has had a purpose in service to others. It is a privilege to be responsible for others who truly need our care. It gives our lives meaning, which is often more important than food and money.

“Things and money makes us happy. The more we have, the happier and more successful we are.”

The research on money and happiness is mixed. Actually a certain level of sustainable income is essential for happiness. Families that have access to good health care, have enough food on the table, can clothe themselves and have a safe place to live have sufficient happiness. For a mid-western family of three about $60-80,000 per year will do the trick. Families above that level are often no more happier no matter how much their income increases. In fact some families who have big incomes develop a negative syndrome called materialism where nothing is ever enough. These families lose the ability to be happy, and can have mental health problems like depression, anxiety and drug use. When money and status are the most important thing in life, family members develop ennui, feel they can’t trust each other, feel empty and are never good enough, no matter how much they succeed. These are often families with high drug use and suicides. To be happy, it is far better to be a poor or moderately wealthy family with good relationships or a wealthy family that de-emphasizes wealth and cares for others. Money in itself does not make us happy.

“Getting out kids into the best college and paying for it proves we are good parents. Kids come first.”

Nothing ruins a family’s well-being than its obsession with getting the kids into the best college and always putting kids first. Gone are the days when kids were as responsible as adults for putting themselves through college or heaven forbid, expected to contribute to the financial well-being of their families. Kids who always come first never learn to care for others and are often entitled in adult relationships. Ideally in families, everybody’s needs ought to be balanced and seen as a way to learn how to love. Before throwing away intimate family time together for excessive outside-the-family involvements or scholarship possibilities, it would be wise to know that research shows that kids who go to less prestigious or costly schools have much less debt, and over the course of their lives earn just about as much as kids who go to prestigious schools. Not all kids should be expected to go to a four-year college and many would be better served by a trade school or community college. Kids who partially earn their way through college by summer jobs and go to affordable schools often are more motivated to learn and get more bang for the buck in selecting higher education.

Probably most kids who go to a prestigious college would be way better off taking time away from school to mature and save for their own education. Too many college kids these days struggle with social anxiety and low self-esteem for two reasons: they are more glued to pseudo-intimate relationships on electronic media than real live people and they have long ago lost the emotional connections to family who are more invested in their succeeding than in their having good character. The parents and siblings in our lives who love us give us way more wealth than any prestigious college or career could. Parents who sacrifice for years have nothing to prove about being good parents.

“Technology is the future. We cannot live without it.”

If you’ve read my columns before you know I am not a big fan of technology. Although I have an advanced degree in science and math and believe in science as a necessary approach to life I do not worship at its altar. Science has its place in my mind. The major problem I have with technology is that we don’t know how to keep it in its place and develop other aspects of our lives in a healthy balance. The advances in science go well beyond our wisdom on how to use it. Cell phones, computers, social media, robots and the latest gadgets all have major downsides and make our lives much less convenient, unsafe and complicated, they too often rob us of emotional closeness and a confident view of ourselves and they frequently take us away from what gives our lives its greatest meaning—the mystery and humility of our not knowing, the splendor and majesty of nature in all its glory and the blissful blessings of safe touch by others who love us.

Evolution has not trained our brains to sit in a cubicle and stare blankly at a screen; it has trained us to be monkeys who hang out with others, pick fleas off each other in a grooming ritual and cuddle one another in a social group. Our brains have nearly the same DNA as chimpanzees and are wired from evolution for real relationships. When the Beatles said, “All we need is love” they got it completely right.

Embracing science is wise but it is even wiser and we would all be a lot happier if we could use the limbic mammalian brain we inherited from evolution. This means learning how to play a musical instrument, reading a hard-covered book, schmoozing with our neighbors in non-judgmental ways, and having real face-to-face time with loved ones. It also means doing regular community service with others in a group of helpers, reciting poetry to our children and having them tell us stories, taking long walks in the woods with family, forgiving our relatives their transgressions and focusing on our own miscues and above all being skeptical and wisely resisting the social manias that promise us happiness where there is none. If we could only turn back to being fuzzy chimpanzees we could have a bright future and be happier than ever. If you have any doubts just observe your family pets and see what they have to teach you about being happy. Life is so simple for them. We should all be as smart as a pet monkey or family pet! Our future is actually in our past and in each other.

Now, I could go on and on about other social myths that undermine our happiness. The list appears endless. I urge you to identify faulty beliefs you’ve learned from this culture and bring them into the light of day. You absolutely have my support to march to the beat of your own drummer and be responsible. I’ve been doing it for years! Have no fear and enjoy.

Regarding this article you may want to read A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amine, and Lennon (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) and Social Causes of Illness by Dr. Richard Totman (Pantheon Books, 1979). These books provide the science underlying this discussion. Godspeed.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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