Synopsis: Career narrative of happiness psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. Talks a bit about happiness research, and how theories on happiness have evolved.
Worth Reading: It depends on your interests. There are, of course, tons of books written on positive psychology for a popular audience. (If you’re looking for self help grounded in science, 59 Seconds had some actionable advice. I never got around to putting it into practice, so I can’t say how good it actually is.)
If you’re interested in Lyubomirsky or her books, it’s probably worth checking out, though it still doesn’t say a whole lot about her theories on happiness, how to become happier, or whether that’s really possible. The very beginning seems to say “no” to the latter, though apparently Lyubomirsky’s research interests are primarily focused on how to make people happier. I’m a bit confused.
I’m always excited to learn about new behaviors (e.g., not rationalizing, happiness at the fortune of another) that are thought to be linked to greater happiness, probably in hopes that I can deliberately foster them myself. It may be important to keep in mind, though, the opener of this article, which states that in the long run, you can’t change your fixed point of happiness. If that’s true, it is good for me to be able to spot patterns in my thinking or behavior that are indicative of unhappiness? Or am I just torturing myself? If my happiness level is fixed, should I even be reading this article?
Highlight: Learning of the Yiddish concept of “shep naches”, happiness for another’s fortune, a kind of reverse schadenfreude. One probably devote another article or five into just that concept, and why it’s so hard for us to feel it.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, you have a happiness set point. It’s partly encoded in your genes. If something good happens, your sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls.
But either way, before too long, your mood will creep back to its set point because of a really powerful and perverse phenomenon referred to in science as “hedonic adaptation.” You know, people get used to things.
Dr. Lyubomirsky — 46, Russian and expecting to give birth to her fourth child this weekend — is an unlikely mood guru. “I really hate all the smiley faces and rainbows and kittens,” she said in her office. She doesn’t often count her blessings or write gratitude letters, both of which she thinks sound hokey even though her research suggests they make people happier.
The volunteers who were happy before the puppeteering review cared a bit about hearing that they had performed worse than their colleagues but largely shrugged it off. The unhappy volunteers were devastated. Dr. Lyubomirsky writes: “It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself. … One’s friends must fail.’ ” This, she says, is probably why a great number of people know the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another’s misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another’s success).
The American philosopher William James is also considered the father of American psychology, and, as Dr. Lyubomirsky herself is well aware, once you leave philosophy aside, conclusions that psychological research lets us draw about how to be happy tend to sound a bit flat.
According to her friend Andrew Ward, now in the psychology department at Swarthmore College, “the working assumption in those years was that happy people were rationalizing all the time.” So Dr. Lyubomirsky designed an experiment in which people ranked 10 desserts, knowing they’d get one. Each participant was then given his second or third choice and told to rank all 10 desserts again. Guess who rationalized the desserts they received? The unhappy people. As Dr. Ward remembered, “The happy people said, ‘Well, this dessert is good, and I’m sure the others are good, too!’ The unhappy people liked their desserts just fine but indicated they were extremely relieved not to have received the ‘awful’ nonchosen dessert. In other words, unhappy people derogated the dessert they did not receive, whereas happy people felt no need to do so. The implication is that unhappy people are doing more mental work.”
She doesn’t consider herself a positive psychologist. The term bothers her. She thinks the word “positive” is unnecessary, in the same way some are bothered by the word “gay” in gay marriage. The idea is it’s all marriage, right? “I’m really not interested in happy people,” she insisted. “I’m interested in how happiness changes over time and what strategies can increase happiness.”
Dr. Lyubomirsky doesn’t think that people will really learn not to adapt. “We’re so focused on the now,” she said. “The present is so compelling. It’s hard-wired.”
As she knows well, focusing too much on happiness, making it too much of a goal, tends to backfire. So she doesn’t dwell on it.
Why is goal pursuit so intrinsically rewarding? Because it imparts structure and meaning to our daily lives, creating obligations, deadlines, and timetables, as well as opportunities for mastering new skills and for interacting with others. Because it helps us attain a sense of purpose, feelings of efficacy over our progress, and mastery over our time. All of these things make people happy. And once we accomplish a step along the way (e.g., completing an internship or an article), we would do well to savor that accomplished subgoal before moving on to a new goal. Instead of focusing too much on the finish line in the first place, we should focus on–and enjoy as much as possible–carrying out the multiple baby steps necessary to make progress. The perfect job may not be the position offering the highest rewards, but rather the place where the daily work–the moments between the big promotion or industry triumph–offers the greatest personal returns.