Happiness: Creating, not waiting

An important new book by the social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that happiness can be cultivated. In "The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want", she discusses what exactly determines happiness. Although it is very common for people to fantasize that they will be happy in the future when their situation changes, i.e., when they find a romantic partner, lose weight, make more money, purchase the new house, etc., Lyobirmirsky cites research that finds that only about 10% of happiness is based upon life circumstances. The very wealthy and the very beautiful, for instance, are only a little happier than their counterparts with more ordinary assets and attributes. A phenomenon called hedonic adaptation seems to account for this counterintuitive finding; humans quickly adapt to their new circumstances and become accustomed to them. The boost of happiness provided by winning the lottery or marrying one's true love recedes as the novel situation grows familiar. (Fortunately, we also seem to adjust to negative changes such as incurring a disability relatively quickly, with little change in happiness.)

So if happiness seems only mildly related to our circumstances, what does account for it? There seems to be a large component associated with individual differences in our basic makeup. Around 50% of happiness appears to be the result of our particular "set point" and is regulated by our hard wiring. However, the other 40%, which is the real focus of this book, is related to what Lyubomirsky calls "intentional activities". A large collection of research suggests that very happy people have certain characteristics in common: they tend to devote lots of time and energy to family and friends and to helping others; they savor life's pleasures and are comfortable expressing gratitude; they imagine the future with optimism but try to live in the present moment; they care for their physical selves with frequent exercise; and they are deeply committed to living in accord with meaningful goals and values. Research further suggests that it is possible to "work" at happiness, and that implementing strategies related to the characteristics of happy people does actually make people happier. Rather than bemoan one's life circumstances (or a lower happiness set point), it is possible to commit to the active generation of greater happiness with certain behaviors. In a later post I will discuss some of these strategies.

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