I’ve been reading some books on neuroscience and what makes the brain “tick” (it’s fascinating how the wet ware between our ears processes incoming sensory information and creates thoughts, emotions, memories etc.) so, when Amazon did their usual data driven cross-sell and presented me with various titles that “others like me bought as well” I stumbled on an interesting book by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California who has been formally investigating well-being for over twenty-years. In her book entitled “The How of Happiness – A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want” she draws on her own and others groundbreaking research to present a set of 12 intentional happiness-increasing strategies. Now, just to set a context, Dr. Lyubomirsky and her fellow researcher, Ken Sheldon received a grant for more than one million dollars from the National Institute of Mental Health to fund research on the possibility of getting happier. After all, the pursuit of happiness is a national obsession, written into our constitution, and heck all that money should of made anybody happy, right? Well, yeah for a while anyway…and that really was the most fascinating part of the book to me, her debunking of our most cherished happiness myths:
- Happiness must be “found”: Nope, happiness is not outside of ourselves (if only I had a better job, was married to the right person, lived in my dream home, etc) it’s really more a state of mind and way of perceiving ourselves, circumstances and others.
- Happiness lies in changing our circumstances: As important as major life events are to each of us, studies have revealed that only about 10% of our happiness is “controlled” by our circumstances.
- You either have it or you don’t: Lots of folks believe that they are genetically pre-disposed to unhappiness. Growing empirical research suggests that you can overcome any genetic predisposition. Fully 40% of our happiness quota is within our control!
So, as it turns out there is no bluebird of happiness. Rather YOU are the bluebird of happiness.
Dr. Lyubomirsky goes on to detail some of the limits of circumstances. Consider material wealth, once you have reached a certain baseline of needs satisfied (enough food, adequate shelter, clothing) more does not make you any happier. She describes life in America in the 1940s where 1/3 of the population did not have indoor plumbing (no bath, toilet, shower, sinks), 1/2 of homes had no central heat, only 5% of those twenty-five years or older would have a college education. When surveyed about their life satisfaction, Americans in 1940 reported being “very-satisfied” a 7.5 on a scale to 10. So, reasonably since we all have bathrooms, lots of electronic gadgets and gizmos, a house over twice the size of yesteryear — we modern-day Americans should bust that number, right? Wrong: 7.2 out of 10.
She writes that, in fact, materialism is a strong predictor of unhappiness, citing research that followed twelve thousand freshman from elite colleges and universities in 1976. Those that expressed strong materialistic goals, i.e. making money, were less satisfied with their lives 20 years later. Furthermore materialists were more likely to suffer from various mental disorders! Wowza! She continues on to overthrow beauty, and “the altar (as in marriage), the lottery and the house in the ‘burbs” and describes “hedonic adaption” which you should not miss — so get the book and read up.
Ok, ok so what does make us happy then?
“In a nutshell, the fountain of happiness can be found in how you behave, what you think, and what goals you set every day of your life”
And apparently in wonderful, corny life-affirming (circa 1940?) stuff like spending more time with family and friends, being thankful and expressing gratitude, learning to forgive, practicing acts of kindness, practicing spirituality and religion, committing to goals, savoring life’s joys and several others.