Since I loved Stumbling on Happiness, I was prepared to love this, but the big difference is that Stumbling on Happiness showed tests and experiments to prove their points, whereas this book only presents conclusions. Maybe equally accurate but less convincing.
What are the meanings and mysteries of happiness? Is it possible to acquire more of it, and can new happiness ever endure? These are foundational questions to which I have devoted my entire career as a research psychologist.
Taught a single happiness-enhancing strategy to a group of severely depressed people - those whose depression scores put them in the most extremely depressed category. Although these individuals had great difficulty even leaving their beds, they were instructed to log on to a web site and engage in a simple exercise. The exercise involved recalling and writing down three good things that happened every day - for example, “Rosalind called to say hello,” “I read a chapter of a book my therapist recommended,” and “The sun finally came out today.” Within fifteen days their depressions lifted from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed,” and 94 percent of them experienced relief.
We have been conditioned to believe that the wrong things will make us lastingly happy. Psychological scientists have amassed persuasive evidence that we are routinely off base about what will bring us pleasure and fulfillment, and as a result, we sometimes work to make things happen that don’t actually make us happy.
The thinking and behavior patterns of the happiest participants in our studies:
They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby.
They practice optimism when imagining their futures.
They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment.
They make physical exercise a weekly and even daily habit.
They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their children their deeply held values).
Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies.
They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.
I use the term happiness to refer to the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
MYTH: HAPPINESS LIES IN CHANGING OUR CIRCUMSTANCES
“I would be happy IF ______” or “I will be happy WHEN ______.”
Changes in our circumstances, no matter how positive and stunning, actually have little bearing on our well-being.
One-third of all homes in 1940 did not have running water, indoor toilets, or bathtub/showers, and more than half had no central heating.
Frank Lloyd Wright observed: “Many wealthy people are little more than the janitors of their possessions.”
Not only does materialism not bring happiness, but it’s been shown to be a strong predictor of unhappiness.
Married people are significantly happier than their single peers.
The only exception that I would argue is the effects of having children. As a mother of two I can attest that the first time you cuddle with your child, it feels wonderful. The thousandth time, it feels - oh, maybe 95 percent as wonderful.
If you’re unhappy with your job, your friends, your marriage, your salary, or your looks, the first step you should take toward reaching greater lasting happiness is to put those things aside in your mind for now. Hard as it is, try not to reflect on them. Keep reminding yourself that these things are really not what is preventing you from getting happier.
Whether or not your fraternal twin (or any other sibling) is happy or unhappy implies nothing about how happy or unhappy you might be. This fact - that identical twins (but not fraternal ones) share similar happiness levels - suggests that happiness is largely genetically determined.
Two men - both named James - who encountered each other for the first time at age thirty-nine. The day they met, both were six feet tall and weighed exactly 180 pounds. Each smoked Salems, drank Miller Lite, and habitually bit his fingernails. When they discussed their life histories, some incredible coincidences emerged. Both had married women named Linda, had divorced them, and then remarried women named Betty. Each James enjoyed leaving love notes to his wife throughout the house. Their firstborn sons were also named James, one James Alan and the other James Allen, and both men had named their dogs Toy. Each James had owned a light blue Chevrolet and had driven it to the same beach in Florida (Passa-Grille Beach) for family vacations.
PKU is said to have a heritability of 1, because it is entirely genetically determined. But this doesn’t mean that an infant born with the gene that causes PKU is doomed to its lethal effects. If the parents ensure that the infant’s diet is free of an amino acid called phenylalanine, which is found in such common foods as eggs, milk, bananas, and NutraSweet, the brain damage may be entirely prevented.
The more stress and trauma the New Zealanders had experienced during their last five years, the more likely they were to become depressed. The critical finding, however, was that the stressful experiences led to depression only among those participants who carried the “bad” short allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene. Interestingly, the same result was found for stress suffered in childhood. Those participants who were maltreated between ages three and eleven were more likely to become depressed at age twenty-six, but again, only if they carried the ill-fated short allele.
If the New Zealanders with the short “bad” allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene were able to avoid highly stressful situations or to engage psychotherapists or supportive confidants when they anticipated stress, their genetic propensity for depression might never be triggered. Furthermore, new research has shown that individuals unfortunate enough to possess the “bad” gene yet fortunate to have had either supportive family environments or several present-day positive life experiences do not become depressed.57 In order to express or not to express themselves, genes need a particular environment (e.g., a happy marriage or job layoff ) or a particular behavior (e.g., seeking out social support). This means that no matter what your genetic predisposition, whether or not that predisposition is expressed is in your hands.
The Serenity Prayer, written by German philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr and widely adopted for use in twelve-step programs: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Contrary to popular belief, people actually get happier with age.
If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings.
Studied 1,761 people over the course of fifteen years, starting when they were single, then continuing after they became married and stayed married. On average, as this remarkable study found, people were no happier during the years after marriage than before marriage, and the average “marriage boost” in happiness lasted for only two years.
Markus didn’t want the effects of marriage to “wear off”; he didn’t want to adapt to the rewards of marriage and take it for granted. So he decided to dedicate himself to be the best husband he could be and not take his wife and their relationship for granted. He consciously remembers to say, “I love you,” to bring her flowers, to initiate plans, trips, and hobbies, to take an interest in his wife’s challenges, successes, and feelings.
All of us have unique needs, interests, values, resources, and inclinations that undoubtedly predispose us to put effort into and benefit from some strategies more than others. For example, an extravert may be more likely to stick with an activity that brings her into regular contact with other people, and a very nurturing person may benefit more from an activity that grants him opportunities to take care of others. Furthermore, some people are best served by working on an area of specific weakness (whether it’s pessimism or overthinking or problems with friendship), and others profit from engaging in a happiness strategy that meshes with their personal ideal of happiness (be it positive thinking or gratifying relationships or fulfilling work).
If there’s any “secret” to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best. Once you have done so, half the battle is won; the way to greater happiness is in your hands.
“Happy people are all alike; every unhappy person is unhappy in his or her own way.”
A particular happiness-increasing strategy will match you better if it feels natural to you and you are truly motivated to pursue it - that is, you want to do it because you value doing it and because you find it enjoyable and not because you feel forced or pressured into doing it, out of either guilt or a desire to please.
Gratitude: “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”
This effect was observed only for those who expressed gratitude every Sunday night. The participants who counted their blessings three times a week didn’t obtain any benefit from it. This finding might seem puzzling at first, but we believe there is an explanation: The average person made to express his or her gratitude every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday appeared to have become bored with the practice, perhaps finding it a chore, whereas the person made to express gratitude only once a week likely continued to find it fresh and meaningful over time.
Grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff
People who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them. When you become truly aware of the value of your friends and family members, you are likely to treat them better, perhaps producing an “upward spiral”.
"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema has spent two decades investigating this phenomenon, which she calls overthinking, exactly what it is. Overthinking is thinking too much, needlessly, passively, endlessly, and excessively pondering the meanings, causes, and consequences of your character, your feelings, and your problems:
Although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their ruminations, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives.
Truly happy people have the capacity to distract and absorb themselves in activities that divert their energies and attention away from dark or anxious ruminations.
“Upward” comparisons (e.g., “He’s paid a higher salary,” “She’s thinner”) may lead to feelings of inferiority, distress, and loss of self-esteem, versus “downward” comparisons (e.g., “He got laid off,” “Her cancer’s spread”)
The happiest people take pleasure in other people’s successes and show concern in the face of others’ failures.
Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “Compassion is the basis of all morality.”
“True happiness consists in making others happy,” according to a Hindu proverb.
Only those who did it once a week (versus three times a week) were rewarded with an increase in well-being.
Doing acts of kindness on a regular basis makes people happy for an extended period. But the extent to which people vary what they do makes an enormous difference. Indeed, those participants who had to repeat their three kind acts over and over again actually dropped in happiness by the middle of the study before bouncing back to their original levels. These individuals probably found their exercise to be just another item on their to-do list - that is, a tedious experience that detracts rather than adds to happiness. If an activity is meant to enhance well-being, it needs to remain fresh and meaningful.
Helping others makes you feel advantaged (and thankful) by comparison
Follow the model of the one group in my first kindness intervention that was rewarded with the biggest increases in happiness - namely, pick one day per week (say, a Monday), and on that day (and on no others) commit one new and special large act of kindness
Certain categories of helping behavior are actually detrimental to physical and mental health. The one researchers know the most about is full-time caregiving for a chronically ill or disabled loved one. Studies show, for instance, that caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease show depression levels three times greater than the average person.
Social support. One of the most important functions of a social bond is the provision of social support in times of stress, distress, and trauma. I know firsthand (and the research confirms) that there may be no better coping mechanism than confiding or sharing a problem with a friend or intimate. Social support can be tangible (e.g., driving us to the hospital), emotional (e.g., listening, reassuring, and helping us generate solutions or alternate perspectives on problems), and informational (e.g., providing financial advice). Indeed, people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.
It is within interpersonal relationships that most of us experience for the first time the emotion of love - the most wildly happiness-inducing emotion there is - and find meaning and purpose in our lives. Of course, as everybody knows, love has its ups and downs; nonetheless, most identify it as one of the chief things that makes them happy.
But what about our friendships, family, and intimate relationships? Do we adapt to them as easily and quickly as we adapt to material goods? The answer turns out to be no. One economist has shown, for example, that people’s desires for happy marriages, for children, and for “quality” children do not change as they successfully attain those things. In other words, there is something special and unique about relationships, and we would do well to strengthen, nourish, and enjoy them.
Pick one strategy from the array below, and start doing it today. John Gottman is a marriage researcher who has psychologically dissected hundreds of married couples. His book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is, in my opinion, the best marital advice manual on the market by far.
What are the secrets of the successful marriages? The first is that the partners talk a lot. The successful couples spend five hours more per week being together and talking.
In the most flourishing relationships partners evoke the best in each other, helping them come closer in reaching their ideal selves. This has been termed the Michelangelo effect. Just as Michelangelo unearthed an ideal form by sculpting a block of marble, so romantic partners can support and facilitate each other to do the same. Because satisfied and stable couples are relatively more likely to idealize each other, they may be more likely to reinforce each other’s positively biased perceptions, helping make them come true.
One couple told me that the secret of their relationship - she’s an intelligent, sweet-tempered former model, and he’s an outgoing, funny, self-described geeky journalist - is that each of them thinks he or she has the better deal.
A deep sense of shared rituals, dreams, and goals underlies thriving relationships. These all are elements that connect you to each other and create a singular inner life shared by just the two of you. You grow together, explore new directions and take risks together, challenge your assumptions together, and take responsibility together. Every week try to do at least one thing that supports your partner’s roles (e.g., as parent, skier, manager, chef ) and dreams (to travel abroad, to climb the corporate ladder, to go back to school, and so on). The goal should be to honor and respect each other and each other’s life dreams and interests, even if you don’t share them all.
Relative to married people, singles are closer to their friends and have more frequent contact with them and that lifelong single older women tend to have close to a dozen devoted decades-long friends.
Friendships don’t just happen; they are made. One prominent psychologist suggests that the magic number is to have three friends or companions you can really count on.
Make time (again). Show interest in other people and offer them encouragement. Once a friendship forms, create rituals that allow you to get together and be in touch on a regular basis - a weekly date to go to the gym, a book club, a monthly dinner out, a joint vacation, or a daily e-mail. In this way, friends become as much a priority as all the other areas of your life.
Listen to your friends’ disclosures and problems: Make eye contact, give your full attention, and acknowledge his or her statements. Hold off giving unsolicited advice or turning attention back to yourself by recounting your own story.
Be supportive and loyal. Be helpful and supportive when your friends need it, and affirm their successes. As I mentioned earlier, we often feel threatened by our friends’ triumphs. Instead of feeling envious, try to bask in their reflected glory. Other universal rules of friendship include standing up for your friends when they’re not there, keeping secrets, not putting down their other friends, and reciprocating favors.
How, then, do you know if you’ve forgiven someone? It’s when you have experienced a shift in thinking, such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased. Consider how much you agree with the following statements, borrowed from a forgiveness scale: I’ll make him/her pay. I want to see him/her hurt and miserable. I live as if he/she doesn’t exist, isn’t around. I keep as much distance between us as possible.
Forgiving is something that you do for yourself and not for the person who has wronged you.
Forgiving does not mean that you should necessarily restore the relationship with the transgressor, nor does it mean excusing or condoning. Some acts may indeed be inexcusable.
Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
Appreciate being forgiven. Before you are able to forgive another person, a good first exercise is to appreciate an instance of when you yourself have been forgiven.
Another way to appreciate being forgiven is to seek forgiveness for yourself. Whether it’s for a past or present wrong, write a letter of apology. Recognizing and accepting that sometimes you are the transgressor may give you empathy and insight into people who are the transgressors in your own life.
One way to practice empathy in your daily life is to notice every time someone does something that you do not understand. Try to work out such a person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Why did he behave the way he did? What factors might explain it? If possible, ask him yourself and (assuming that he is self-insightful), you might learn something.
Flow is a state of intense absorption and involvement with the present moment. You’re totally immersed in what you’re doing, fully concentrating, and unaware of yourself. The activity you’re performing is challenging and engrossing, stretching your skills and expertise.
To maintain flow, we continually have to test ourselves in ever more challenging activities. We have to apply focused mental discipline or strenuous physical exertion. We have to stretch our skills or find novel opportunities to use them.
Give yourself the goal of learning more about the speaker. What is on her mind? What emotions is she experiencing right now? Have you learned something about her that you didn’t know?
Savoring album is essentially a strategy to create and savor the memories (the mental photographs) of your positive experiences. It’s also valuable to review the album in less happy times, when you’re especially needful of a boost.
Train yourself to use a camera as a savoring tool.
Foster savoring in the laboratory by drawing people’s attention to the bittersweet or transient nature of some positive life experiences - that is, by pointing out that many such experiences will eventually end.
The bittersweet (“graduation is soon”) group was more likely to show increases in happiness and to engage in savoring behaviors (e.g., spending time with friends, taking photos, participating in college clubs, or taking a scenic route to class).
Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed.
Happiness Activity No. 10: Committing to Your Goals
An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding. - Robert Louis Stevenson
Weighed down by the sorrows and agonies of his self-absorbed and aimless clients, an Australian psychiatrist named W. Béran Wolfe summed up his philosophy like this: “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert.”
He was right. People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations.
Find a happy person, and you will find a project.
The process of working toward a goal, participating in a valued and challenging activity, is as important to well-being as its attainment.
People often feel enormous letdowns after having attained something that they have been striving toward for years.
G. K. Chesterton’s words, “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”
Simultaneously striving for conflicting goals (like “build my business” and “spend more time outdoors”) will make you so annoyed and discouraged that you’ll relinquish both
removal of the frown lines makes other people perceive you as happier (and more attractive), and as this investigation shows, people actually do feel happier.
Mothers who express positive emotions have infants who begin to express positive emotions as well,
If you suddenly experienced a financial windfall, you would ultimately be much happier if you spent the money on numerous pleasant, mood-boosting things occurring on a day-to-day or weekly basis, rather than spend it all on a single big-ticket item that you believe you would really love.
To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. - George Santayana
Renew your commitment every day.