September 20, 2014

Happiness: Go For It

What you should know and to to fine even more joy in our life.

Are you happy? Do you know it? (Go ahead, we’ll wait while you clap your hands.)

Of course you’re happy now; you’re reading your favorite magazine. But if you clapped with only mild enthusiasm, or didn’t clap at all, you’re not alone.

Recent social science research not only suggests ways of becoming happier but also demonstrates how many of us are getting it wrong. Psychology professor at Stanford University and author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., says most of the things we assume will make us happy don’t. In her recently published second book, The Myths of Happiness, Lyubomirsky explores why major adult milestones—getting married, having a baby, landing that big promotion, etc.—don’t give us the long-term satisfaction we anticipate. And we must learn how to move forward when this happens.

But first, the good news. In Lyubomirsky’s first book, The How of Happiness, she lays out an astonishing figure: Up to 40 percent of our happiness is within our control to change.

“So the caveat here is that some people do have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others,” Lyubomirsky explains. Essentially, she equates these people to those who are naturally trim—those lucky few who can down donuts by the dozen and never gain an ounce. But just because most of us have to watch our weight doesn’t mean we can never be thin. Similarly, the folks who hit it big in the happy-go-lucky lottery aren’t the only ones entitled to happiness. We all can be happy. The difference is simply how hard we have to work to get there.

“Happiness takes work,” says Donna Daisy, a Naples-based psychologist and author of Why Wait? Be Happy Now. “Developing your happiness muscle is like developing your muscles at the gym.”

Daisy believes that daily meditations and exercises in positive thought can actually increase day-today happiness. She uses an example from her own life to illustrate her point. When her husband faced a life-threatening infection, the most obvious and natural response was to focus on how awful it was.

“We realized he probably wasn’t going to beat the infection and we had a choice. We could become depressed or we could try and spend our remaining time together being happy,” Daisy says, adding thoughtfully: “But how can you be happy despite adversity in your life?”

Daisy began doing research on the power of positive thought. During her husband’s illness, the pair consciously worked to focus on the good. When the obstacles seemed too steep or the outcomes too ominous, they’d go into distraction mode, watching old comedy reruns in an attempt to keep from plunging into despair.

“There are above-the-line emotions and below-the-line emotions,” Daisy explains. “Our goal was to keep ourselves above the line.”

Lyubomirsky—whom Daisy interviewed at length for her book—agrees, saying, “Positive emotions are antidotes to negative emotions. If you’re feeling content or grateful, you’re not going to feel as angry or, you know, insecure or anxious. It’s important to cultivate more positive emotions in your daily life.”

But even if you’re naturally a glass-half-full thinker, there’s more to longterm happiness than just thinking happy thoughts. In fact, Lyubomirsky argues that there are some pervasive myths in society that keep many of us from actually being happy. This is the topic that Lyubomirsky’s The Myths of Happiness delves into.

The cover of the book shows a woman peering down at an anemic-looking lawn. Across the sidewalk, the grass is lush and practically neon green. Over 255 extensively footnoted pages, Lyubomirsky explains why this cruel, grass-is-greener optical illusion persists for so many of us. Why the dream husband, house, job and children don’t make you happy in the ways you’ve been told they should.

“Since I wrote [the last] book, I’ve been doing a lot of research on hedonic adaptation—this phenomenon that people get used to things in their life, and that they sort of go back to the baseline,” Lyubomirsky explains. “I realized a lot of people were not really aware of the power of adaptation, and that’s where a lot of the myths come from.”

Hedonic adaptation simply means that humans have a knack for getting used to pleasurable things. Lyubomirsky even argues that we enjoy a massage more if we’re interrupted halfway through it. Hedonic adaptation is why newly wedded bliss generally lasts, at most, two years, and why a dream job loses its luster so quickly.

“These things only change our life temporarily and then we get used to them, and we go back to where we started,” she explains.

But there’s another problem, too: Humans are apparently terrible at seeing the forest for the trees. Lyubomirsky hypothesizes that, while
momentous occasions make us happy for a moment, the day-to-day hassles of life quickly bring us back to our set points.

For example, say you’re moving into your dream house. In theory, the new home should make you happy. Ultimately, though, it’s the fact that the movers came late or that your favorite vase broke or that you can’t find anything in the mess that will dominate your mood on moving day. Even worse, once you’re in your new place, the irritations of daily life will quickly trump any happiness you anticipated the new home bringing you.

If all of this seems rather, well, like “duh,” that’s because it is. Lyubomirsky points out that there’s a real banality in many of her findings; that almost all of us go through the same letdowns—losing interest in a spouse, questioning why our new job doesn’t make us happy, wondering if parenthood was the wrong choice. And yet, we think we’re the only ones feeling disappointed by life’s big promises.

That’s one of the reasons she wrote the book, to point out you’re not alone. But the other is to add some social-science heft to the often light-on-real-research self-help genre.

“If we scientists only publish in journals that no one else sees, that’s not very helpful, right?” Lyubomirsky asks, adding, “And sometimes life
coaches and happiness coaches take the research that we do and they try to apply it to their work, but they don’t always do it accurately or correctly.”

The Myths of Happiness relies extensively on scholarly findings,both from Lyubomirsky’s own “happiness lab” and from a long list of peer-reviewed studies. She points out, by the way, that her tricks and tips for boosting happiness will not cure clinical depression.

Happiness lies on a continuum and depression isn’t on that same continuum because it’s an illness,” she says. But for the average person just trying to slide a little higher on that happiness scale, Lyubomirsky’s books just may be the golden ticket.

“It’s important for people to understand these myths. Knowledge is power, right? It doesn’t mean that I’m going to help you make the right decisions, but you’ll be able to make more informed decisions if you know more.”

And hopefully, you’ll be able to become at least a little bit happier— something that we think is worthy of a little applause.\

You Can Buy Happiness, to a Point

In both of her books, Lyubomirsky talks extensively about how money and happiness are related. It should not be a surprise to anyone that, to a point, money does equal happiness. Those who cannot afford food, shelter or medical care generally will rate their happiness lower than will those who can. But after a certain level of wealth is achieved—when basic needs are comfortably met—money matters less.

“The effect that more money has on happiness is not particularly large,” Lyubomirsky says. “And that makes sense; there’s stress that comes with wealth.”

Oh, and that yacht you bought—that won’t make you happy, unless you use it for good.

“If you use your money for personal growth—say, learning a new language or skills—that can contribute to happiness,” Lyubomirsky explains. “But if you, say, buy a bigger yacht or car, unless you use them for personal growth or community growth, say, hosting charity events, they won’t add to your happiness.”

Steps to Happiness

Try gratitude journaling: Both Daisy and Lyubomirsky suggest keeping a daily gratitude journal where you log things both large and small. Daisy suggests trying to think of different items each day and being as specific as possible. “It can be as simple as realizing I’m thankful for my cell phone, which let me get in touch with you,” she says.

Seal away your negative emotions: Lyubomirsky suggests that readers let painful experiences go by writing them down and literally storing them in a box. She references a study where participants were told to write about a strong personal desire that was thwarted by their spouse. Those who wrote the experiences down, sealed them in an envelope and stored them away in a box actually reported feeling less regret and anger about the experience.

Do something different: Apparently, science has proven that variety really is the spice of life. Lyubomirsky says research shows couples who engage in different—and sometimes adrenaline-producing—activities on a regular basis feel happier and more satisfied in their marriages. Skydiving anyone?

Focus on the process, not the end goal: How long does the happiness of winning a Nobel Prize last? Apparently only a few weeks. Lyubomirsky argues that if we train our minds to focus on enjoying our day-to-day challenges and work, we’ll focus less on big-picture goals, which, after they are attained, can lead to real letdown.

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