On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
For many people, the holiday season and new year is a time to reflect on their well-being. We ask ourselves how happy we have been, and how we can find more happiness in the months to come. The answers seem straightforward: make more money, lose those extra pounds, find love, start a family. While these things may bring happiness for a time, chances are it will be fleeting. That’s according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist and expert in the science of happiness. In her new book, she says what should make us happy doesn’t, but what shouldn’t make us happy does. She joins us to talk about “The Myths of Happiness.”
- Sonja Lyubomirsky author of "The Myths of Happiness" and professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Myths of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2013.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out with a cold. The past few weeks were a busy and exciting time of year for many of us.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThere were family gatherings, holiday vacations and New Year's resolutions. But the author of a new book says if we felt underwhelmed by it all, less happy than we expected, that's not surprising. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and an expert in the study of happiness.
MS. SUSAN PAGEShe joins me in the studio to talk about her research and her new book "The Myths of Happiness." Sonja, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. SONJA LYUBOMIRSKYIt's a pleasure to be here, thank you.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation in just a bit. They can call our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
PAGESo you write about the myths of happiness and the cover of your book has a woman on one side of a sidewalk that's kind of brown and she's peering longingly at the other side of the sidewalk, which is all green and laden with flowers. So is that how most Americans feel?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, you know, it represents one of the myths of happiness that I talk about. I really talk about two categories of myths and first one is the idea that, you know, I'm not happy now, but I'll be happy when, you know, X, Y and Z happen. When I get that promotion I've always wanted, when I move to the city I've always wanted to live in, when I get married, when I have a baby, and when I make money.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd the problem with that myth or misconception is it's not that those things won't make us happy. I mean, they undoubtedly will, but they don't make us as happy or for as long as we think that they will.
LYUBOMIRSKYSo we always are kind of -- we're waiting for happiness. We're searching for more happiness, but that happiness tends to be rather fleeting.
PAGEAnd so, to tie it, say, to the holiday season, lots of expectations get built up about, you know, you shop for presents, you cook treats, you think about seeing family members you haven't seen for a while and then?
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd then, you know, our expectations are so high. And actually I just wrote a little piece about expectations about the holidays because we've been thinking about this so much, is that we think that, you know we look forward to them all the year-long, you know, we collect recipes and we make travel plans.
LYUBOMIRSKYBut the truth is day to day life is not so much about the big events, it's about the little things. It's about, like, your, you know, your turkey getting burned in the oven or getting stuck in traffic or sort of those little, those little, day-to- day things that actually tend to affect our happiness more than kind of big changes.
PAGEWell, in fact, you talk in your book about when big things happen, good or bad, you get married, the birth of a child something good or something terrible, the death of a spouse that we're better able to cope with that than we are with the things that happen every single day.
LYUBOMIRSKYYeah, it seems counter-intuitive, but when big things happen. Well, let's talk about the negative things because that's really what people talk about in terms of coping with negative events.
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, when something bad happens to us, you know, we kind of prepare ourselves. You know, we muster our resources. We seek social support. We kind of do whatever is in our power to kind of manage that event.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd actually, I have an example in my book about one time I got into a car accident and I was fine. I was like, okay, I can handle this. You know, I called my friends. I, you know, I called insurance companies. I mean, I just handled it. And on the same day, I had a very minor event happen where I lost, like, a window seat on an airplane and it made me so upset.
LYUBOMIRSKYThe thing about the little things is that we don't tend to kind of muster all of our resources to cope with it. And we can't really complain to our friends about the little things because they're not going to support us. You know, they're going to be bored hearing about those little events.
PAGESo when it comes to dealing with sad things or negative things that happen in your life, what's the lesson from what the reality that you just described?
LYUBOMIRSKYSure, sure. Well, one of the myths of happiness that I talk about is sort of the idea that, oh, I'm going to be forever unhappy if certain bad things happen to me. So if I don't have the -- if I don't make the money that I wanted to make, if my dreams don't come true, if I have to get a divorce, if I don't find a life partner, if I get ill. We feel like we're going to be forever unhappy. Our life is going to be over as we know it.
LYUBOMIRSKYNow, undoubtedly, those are really horrible, stressful events, but it turns out that people are so resilient and we are much more resilient than we think we are and research shows that even really, really negative events don't make people sort of as unhappy as they expect.
PAGEAnd what about positive events? So the lesson of positive events would be what really makes us happy is that the positive things, the small positive things that might happen on a day-to-day basis, just like the negative things, have a disproportionate impact?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, that's right. The small positive things on a day-to-day basis are the ones that really influence our happiness so some of the advice, sort of one of the things I talk about in my book, "The Myths of Happiness" is to try to increase those like little bursts of positive motion during your day because it's really those little things, you know, like having lunch with a friend, you know, enjoying a sunny day, luxuriating in a shower or eating a pastry, listening to music. Those are the kinds of things that influence our happiness on a day-to-day basis.
PAGESo part of that is just being aware of the present, right? Living in the present...
LYUBOMIRSKYLiving in the moment, absolutely.
PAGESo for you today, what have you done today that kind of reinforced that sense of happiness or is there some irritating thing that happened today that you had to deal with on the opposite side?
LYUBOMIRSKYRight, right. Well, you know, I haven't been awake for very long today so, but like, you know, I didn't get a great night's sleep and so that's something that you think. Actually there's research on this, that people don't realize how much sleep affects our happiness. And so, you know, when we're a little tired or we have a little bit of a cold, you know, that kind of thing can really affect, influence our happiness sometimes more than the big things.
PAGESo does it, does happiness matter? To what degree does happiness affect other things about us?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, absolutely happiness matters. And so a lot of my book is about us sort of waiting for happiness. We think that, well, once I, you know, once I make money, once I, you know, have a baby, once I get married, find the one, then I'll be happy.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd the thing is those things really do make us happy, but we have to work at it because one of the themes of my book is called Hedonic Adaptation, and this is the phenomena that human beings are just remarkably good at getting used to changes in their lives, especially positive changes.
LYUBOMIRSKYSo first when we get married, we feel it's so exciting, it's so passionate, so wonderful, but research shows that on average, after two years people get back to their previous level of happiness after their wedding day and the same thing with a new job or making money.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so we have to just understand that that's a very normal human process and so if our job or our marriage isn't sort of what it used to be, that that's just a normal situation and that we shouldn't kind of think that's that. We shouldn't sort of create a crisis point out of those feelings.
PAGEBut I wonder, in fact, if there's not a powerful and positive role of unhappiness, that is you get a promotion at work and you think this is great, I love this new job. I've gotten a pay raise. Maybe it's valuable to become dissatisfied with it or, you know, used to it after two years so that you'll aspire to the next thing, so that you'll continue to strive.
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, that's a really great question. So I talk a lot about hedonic adaptation and the sort of costs of adaptation. But really there are a lot of benefits too. I mean, so human beings would not be able to make much progress, would not really be able to strive if they were just sort of content with what they achieved.
LYUBOMIRSKYI mean, and so it's sort of in our natures to always want more. And so that is a good thing in general, but it does have these sort of down sides which are that we're almost never sort of happy when we achieve our goals. We sort of are happy for an hour and then we want to go to the next goal.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so my advice is that we really want to appreciate, you know, the achievement of that goal and to really focus on it. You know, William James, who was a, you know, famous philosopher and he's considered the father of psychology, has this great quote that says, "My experience is what I agree to attend to." And it's really mind-boggling when you think about that.
LYUBOMIRSKYBasically, what he's saying is that what you're thinking about, what you're focusing on, what you're directing your attention on determines your experience, really determines your life. And so it's our choice to focus on, you know, the negatives or the positives.
PAGEI know people who when times are good or times are bad are generally happy, I would say, and people who even when things go pretty well for them they seem a little sour. Is this genetic?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, that's a great question. So it is partially genetic. So my first book is called "The How of Happiness" and that dealt a lot with that topic, this idea that there's a set point for happiness and that many of us are born with, or most of us are born with sort of a baseline to which we tend to return to.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so we all know people who are generally really happy or moderately happy or not so happy and so that is, in part, genetically determined and that comes from studies of twins. But it doesn't mean that we're doomed to sort of experience that set point. We can experience higher happiness than our set point sort of dictates.
PAGEWhat did the studies with twins show?
LYUBOMIRSKYOkay, well, I really love these studies. So basically what they do is they look at identical twins versus fraternal twins. Identical twins, of course, share 100 percent of their DNA. Fraternal twins share 50 percent of their DNA.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd they show that identical twins are much more similar in their happiness levels than are fraternal twins.
PAGESo even when they've not been raised together, have had very different life experiences they tend to be about the same in terms of levels of happiness?
LYUBOMIRSKYExactly. Which is really fascinating, right? Even twins raised apart and so depending on sort of the correlation between identical twins compared to the fraternal twins you can come up, you can compute what's called the heritability coefficient, which tells you sort of to what extent is happiness heritable, to what extent is it genetic and kind of the average is about 50 percent.
PAGESo 50 percent genetic, what approximately is up to us? What portion of being, happiness or a happiness level is up to actions or attitudes that people can adopt for themselves?
LYUBOMIRSKYOkay. Well, according to my colleagues and my theories about this, about 40 percent, is up to us. Now, I actually hate to sort of throw that number out there because people take it too seriously because they think, oh, 40 percent, okay, and they -- it's not set in stone. It's just based on a lot of averages and estimates, but the general take-home message is that a large proportion of happiness is under our control.
PAGEAnd if somebody's New Year's resolution was I'm going to be happier this year, what's the single thing that you think they should do first?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, that's a big question. So, you know, there are hundreds of things that you can do to become happier and it really depends on the individual. You know, for some people, I mean, there are some things that I think are kind of important for everyone so focusing on relationships is really critical. Relationships are very, very highly related to happiness, so nurturing relationships, investing in them, showing gratitude to your partner.
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know one of the things that I talk about in my book is every day think of us and think about what can I do for five minutes today to make my partner happier?
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to go to the phones and take some of your calls and questions about happiness. We're at 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Sonja Lyubomirsky. She's author of "The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy But Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy But Does." She's a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Your research is on happiness. You know, it seems quite natural study conflict or to study depression or anxiety.
PAGENot quite so natural somehow to study happiness. How did you get interested in this field?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, absolutely, that's right. And in fact, I started to research on happiness in graduate school. So on the very first day of graduate school, I met with my adviser who's an expert on conflict and negotiation. And we started talking about, you know, what is happiness and why are some people happier than others? And at the time, this was back in 1994, there's really only one researcher who studied happiness, a dean in Illinois.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd, you know, there's so much research on depression, anxiety, stress, divorce, trauma. And that research is really important to conduct, really, really important. But there's sort of a field called positive psychology which focuses on studying sort of the positive side of life. That, you know, basically the premise is just as important to look at sort of why people flourish and what makes people happy. And so that's what I've been doing for the past, you know, 20 or so years.
PAGESo let's go back to that very first question. What is happiness? How would you define it?
LYUBOMIRSKYSure. Well, researches define happiness as having two components. And the first component is the experience of positive emotions, right? So happy people experience frequent, you know, joy, contentment, tranquility, pride, curiosity, affection, not all the time, of course. They have negative emotions as well. But -- and the second component of happiness is the sense that your life is good. That your progressing towards your goals in life. And so you really need both of those components to be a truly happy person.
PAGELet's go to our -- the phones and listen to the questions and comments of some of our callers. We'll go first to Columbus, OH and talk to Carol. Carol, you're on the air.
CAROLHi. Thanks for having me.
PAGEYes. Thanks for calling us.
CAROLSo, my question was, do you think happiness is a mindset necessarily? I'm a young person and a bunch of negative things has happened where it's like within the past few months and I've been trying to stay pretty positive. My father died, my boyfriend broke up with me, my cat got run over by a car. I'm just wondering, like, everything just seem so catastrophic and I was just wondering what advice you would have to be happy.
PAGECarol, thanks so much for your call. We're sorry for your loss.
LYUBOMIRSKYYeah. I'm so sorry for those events. But, you know, you're right. I mean, happiness is, in large part, a mindset. It's in large part it's what's inside of us rather than what's outside of us. So when negative, when bad things happen, you know, it makes you unhappy. I mean, that's very natural, that's normal and it takes time to sort of get past or cope with those events. But eventually, people tend to go back to kind of their previous baseline.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd a lot of it has to do with sort of how your attitudes, sort of how you think about what has happened. You know, do you dwell on the negative or do you focus on the positive. Do you think about maybe there's ways that you have become stronger as a person as a result of these events. Maybe you've gotten closer to some of your friends and family members as a result of these events. So sometimes good some good can come out of negative events and adversities.
PAGEWe talked about what happiness is, how you define it. Let me ask you another question, how do you measure it? How do you know if you've gotten more happy or less happy or whether someone is happier than someone else?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, you know, unfortunately, there's no, you know, thermometer for happiness. So what researchers do is we ask people how happy they are. You know, we ask people. We give them various scales and questionnaire. So are you on a scale of, you know, one to seven, are you a happy person? Are you happier than your peers? And these measures have been shown to be both valid and reliable.
PAGELet's go back to the phones, talk to Mark. He's calling us from Aurora, IL. Mark, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKWell, someone has to say it, Happy New Year.
PAGEThank you, Mark.
MARKI want to suggest and ask about the research on this that a lot of happiness is made more (word?) or keener if there's an element of deprivation. And I have a New Year's Eve illustration that sort of has a preface from Mr. Spock. He tells a character on one of the episodes who has managed to get his life, to get control instead Mr. Spock. Spock says to him, she is yours. After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.
MARKIt is not logical but it is often true. And the thing that happened to me on New Year's Eve is that I was over at a woman's house and she has a dog named Millie. I jokingly call the dog my girlfriend. Usually when we're over there for small group meetings, she keeps Millie behind a gate, so I have to take a little more trouble to get to her and play with her a little bit. But tonight, New Year's Eve, she let Millie run freely all over the house.
MARKAnd I got a chance to pet her and hug her and kiss her, and she snuggled up next to me on the sofa. And she jumped on my lap. And I found curiously that my joy in playing with this dog was somewhat intensified by the fact that I don't always get to.
PAGEMark, isn't that interesting? And I would like to say that Spock is not quoted nearly enough on "The Diane Rehm Show," so thank you for filling deficit. How would you, Sonja, how would you respond to Mark's perspective on this?
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd thank you for that question, too, because I am a big Trekkie, a big fan of the old "Star Trek" so I love that. So absolutely. I mean, first of all, there's a big contrast effect that you can't have happiness without unhappiness. In a sense, we don't even know what happiness means if we don't have unhappy moments. And absolutely that some sort of deprivation that can sort of enhance our happiness, enhance our joy.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd in fact, one thing that you talk about, what Spock really refers to is hedonic adaptation that we sort of get used to having and we can have too much of a good thing. And so, we want to sort of sometimes ration positive events. We don't want to go out to dinner every night or cuddle with our dog all the time, because we're going to kind of get -- take those things for granted and become satiated.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so, I think you've hit upon one of the results from research, which is that you want to kind of ration the good things.
PAGEMark, thanks so much for your call. Here's an email from Carol. She writes: I have moderately severe depression. On the father side of my family it's a real problem. I am undergoing shock treatments at the present time and I'm on medication. However, when I took Oprah's Happiness Quiz, I had happy answer to all but one question. I consider myself happy in spite of this health problem I have. What do you think of that?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, that's a fascinating question. I mean, I think it's very unusual because there's, as you might imagine, a very high correlation between depression and unhappiness. But, you know, depression, you know, is an illness. You know, it's an episodic illness. And so, when you are not -- when you're sort of between episodes, you know, people can be very happy, can be as happy as the average person. And I suppose that's what this listener is experiencing, which is great.
PAGELet's go to Pittsford, NY and talk to Julia. Hi, Julia.
JULIAHi. How are you?
JULIAYou know, I had a comment. When I was growing up, we really didn't have much of anything and my father was 54 when I was born. And so when I was a teenager, he was in his mid-70s and he had some health problems. But in our household, you know, the cup was always half full and he always had a great attitude. And he studied, you know, comparative religion and philosophy his whole life.
JULIAAnd he used to say to us, you know, you are the captain of your faith and the master of your soul. And, you know, I think happiness is a state of mind. And I'm sort of thinking about your previous caller who talked about losing her parent and her cat. And I think that, you know, things in your life really won't make you happy. But doing things to help yourself get happy, like working out and eating right and also making other people happy is a great thing for happiness.
PAGEJulia, interesting call. Tell us, how happy do you consider yourself?
JULIAWell, I've been married 30 years and my husband and I are extraordinarily happy. You know, we live a modest life. We, you know, and I'm very happy. And my husband always says to me, I always look at the cup half full.
PAGEAll right. The lesson of your parents perhaps.
JULIAMm-hmm, indeed. And there was any arguing in our house. And my parents never discussed finances in front of us. But, you know, they were very well-to-do British types and, you know, always had the stiff upper lip. But we grew up in a home that was -- we really didn't have much but they always had a good outlook.
PAGEAll right, Julia, thanks for your call.
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, you know, again, Julia, you're touching in on sort of a theme of "The Myths of Happiness," which is that, yeah, sort of happiness is inside of you. It isn't -- it's an outlook, an attitude. It has so much to do with what you direct your attention to, what do you focus on every day. And so, absolutely. The, you know, life circumstances, of course, can affect your happiness. But they don't affect our happiness as much as we think they do.
PAGEAnd she talked about some particular things. One, exercising and eating right. Also, doing things for other people. Talk about what...
LYUBOMIRSKYRight, right. So I actually have a whole section in my book about that. It turns out that, you know, helping other people and doing thoughtful things, being generous to others, trying to make other people happy makes a big difference to your own happiness. Of course, we don't tend to sort of think of helping others as -- the reason we help others is usually not to make ourselves happy.
LYUBOMIRSKYBut it's a very, very powerful effect. And so if you, you know, everyday if you try to do something to make someone else's life better or brighter, it's going to contribute to your own happiness.
PAGEAnd it doesn't necessarily need to be something huge that you do to save the world, it can be something small you do for a friend.
LYUBOMIRSKYThat's right. And actually my students and I do studies where we ask people on a regular basis to do kind acts for others and they become happier. We actually just finished a study in Vancouver with kids, fourth, fifth and sixth grade kids, where we asked them to do acts of kindness every week. And not only do these kids get happier but they became more popular with their peers. So which is really important at any age. And so being kind to others just has lots of benefits.
PAGEHere's an emailer who writes us, Thomas. He writes us: There are many incendiary studies and articles showing that people in what think of a second and third world countries are happier by far than we are in the wealthiest country in the world. Do any of these studies elucidate the reasons why they're happy? Where do third-worlders get their happiness?
LYUBOMIRSKYOkay, sure. That's a great question. And I should first start by saying that, you know, there are country differences in happiness. So while people who live in wealthier countries are happier than people who live in third world countries, although it's not clear why because wealth is also correlated with democracy and freedom and equal rights and all of those things.
LYUBOMIRSKYBut, you know, actually I have a friend who does research, who goes sort of around the world and, you know, does research in sort of the ghettos of India and sort of places where you think you would not find much happiness and he does find happiness. His name is Robert Biswas-Diener. He does find happiness in those places. And what he finds is basically it's about family. I mean, that's where people are getting their happiness from.
LYUBOMIRSKYIt's about family and getting meaning from maybe it is a -- maybe it's your job or a hobby and it's your kids and it's your spouse. That's pretty universal.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Well, along those lines, the Gallup organization released a global survey last month and it's about which countries were the happiest, where was the highest sense of well-being. And Latin America did the best of any region of the world. I think seven of the top 10 countries were -- that ranked first on this list were Latin American countries. Why do you think that would be?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, I'm not surprised at all. Latin American countries are very, what's called collectivists. You know, they are -- there's a focus on family, a focus on sort of group goals as opposed to the individual. And so, again, as I was saying before, you know, relationships are really key, really critical to happiness. And so I think people in Latin American countries really experience a lot of joy sort of being together, being social together.
PAGELet's go to Matt calling us from Pittsburgh. Matt, you're on the air.
MATTHi. How you doing?
MATTWell, my question is, considering that we are so concerned with happiness, some of us, is it potentially dangerous, do you think, or potentially lead to unhappiness as a goal rather than other, you know, goals that someone might consider greater that seem to be the kind of goals that lead people towards happiness rather than just the effect of happiness as a, you know, in it of itself.
PAGESo happiness is a byproduct of doing other things?
MATTYeah, I guess so.
PAGEYeah. Matt, thanks for your call.
LYUBOMIRSKYThank you, Matt. That's a great question. And there's actually some new research right now that shows exactly what you're saying that if we put happiness sort of too much of a goal in front of us. If we are constantly kind of asking ourselves, am I happy yet? Am I happy yet? Then that actually can detract and even backfire. And so, my advice is always to focus on not sort of being happier but on sort of whatever it is that you're trying to do.
LYUBOMIRSKYMaybe it's to make other people's lives better. Maybe it's pursuing significant goals in your life or trying to be more grateful, trying to be more positive and then sort of -- and then happiness will be the byproduct of that.
PAGENow, does wealth bring happiness?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, it does. It does especially when you're poor. Okay, so money makes a big difference to happiness. So it keeps you from being poor. Now after your basic needs are met, your basic needs for food, shelter, safety, et cetera, money still makes you happier, right? So people who, you know, $200,000 a year are happier than those who make $100,000 a year. But the effect is just not as strong.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so, I have a whole chapter in my book about money. And I talk about sort of what's important is not the money but sort of what you do with it. Sort of, do you spend it on, if you spend it on other people, if you spend your money on experiences instead of buying lots of sort of things and possessions. You know, how you spend your money makes sort of a bigger difference to your happiness than just sort of having money itself.
PAGESo does love make you happy?
LYUBOMIRSKYYes. And, again, going back to relationships. But love does change. And so, you know, in the marriage chapter I talk about how, you know, when we first meet, you know, our loved one, there's a lot of passion, a lot of excitement. That's called passionate love. But over time, that tends to transform itself to what's called companionate love, which is more of a feeling of sort of deep affection and trust and friendship.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so, we have to kind of -- we have to understand that. That if our love has changed, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with our relationships or us, that's just a normal human process.
PAGEHow about children? Does having children make you happy?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, it does. It's a -- that's a complicated question. But on average, people who have children and have more meaning in their lives. Some people who don't have children, although it depends, like, for example, for younger people that effect is not -- is often not the case. But, you know, if you think that, you know, having children will make me happiness, if your happiness is riding on that, then you're going to be disappointed.
PAGEBut you write about marital happiness, I guess, getting -- going down with the birth of the first child and going up with the departure from the household of the youngest child.
LYUBOMIRSKYRight. And, you know, different studies show different things, but there's sort of a trend that shows that marital happiness is highest during the empty nest period when the children leave the home and also pretty high when the children are between five and 12. Basically, if they're not really little and if they're not teenagers, the worst period is generally when you have teenagers or when you have really, really small kids.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd the best marital happiness, and you still have meaning in your life from having children.
PAGEWe're talking this hour with Sonja Lyubomirsky. She's author of "The Myths of Happiness." We're going to take a very short break and come back and take more of your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWe talked with Matt before the break about whether people should pursue happiness or whether they should pursue other goals that might lead to happiness. And here's -- we have a related email, I think, from Jose who writes, "The authors of our Declaration of Independence in their wisdom referred to the pursuit of happiness rather than the attainment of happiness because they understood that happiness is a by-product or consequence of what we do. It's a process as opposed to an outcome." Interesting that the founders mentioned happiness in this fundamental document of ours.
LYUBOMIRSKYYes. You know, Thomas Jefferson and the other writers of the Declaration of Independence, I think, were very wise to mention the importance of, you know, sort of, having the right to pursue happiness. And I think they were wise not to, sort of, promise the attainment of happiness. But I think in part this is -- this is why happiness is such a, I guess, such a large part of the, kind of, the consciousness of the American people. I mean, this is -- we're preoccupied, maybe even obsessed, with happiness.
PAGEAnd research indicates that happier people even tend to not only are happier, which is a good thing. They live longer lives.
LYUBOMIRSKYYeah, that's right. Actually, I have a whole line of research showing that happier people are more, sort of, "successful" in life. Not only do they live longer, but they have better relationships. They're more likely to get married. They have higher immune function. They're healthier. They make more money. They have more friends. They're better liked. They're better negotiators. They're more generous.
LYUBOMIRSKYSo, you know, when people think about pursuing happiness they often think of it as a, kind of, a selfish goal, like, it's, sort of, a hedonistic, ego-centric goal. But I don't think it is at all because if you become a happier person you're not going to only benefit yourself. You're going to benefit your friends and family members and your communities.
PAGEAnd but if you're a person -- we talked about the 50 percent that might be -- of your set point for happiness to be attributed to your genes. For some people are they just battling nature in trying to become happier people?
LYUBOMIRSKYI think they are. I think if your set point for happiness is lower than you'd like, it is harder for you. It's kind of like if you have a set point for weight you have to work a lot harder at keeping your weight down. Some people are just lucky they're born, sort of, happier and they don't have to do very much to be happy. And so, yeah, so you just have to work harder at it. And I think people don't often realize that it does take hard work to be happy.
PAGEHere's a really touching email, I think, that we've received. "I am a social worker who works with children who have been abused in multiple ways. Often live in poverty, attend substandard schools and sometimes they're living with mental illness or disability. How can they cultivate an attitude of happiness and positive thinking given such circumstances?
PAGEI'm tired of hearing often horrific life circumstances being dismissed by people who focus on positive thinking and attitudes. Working at eating right, positive thinking will not alleviate the suffering of these children. And telling people to have a good attitude, stiff upper lip, look for happiness within, etc. may not hurt, but it does trivialize the very real circumstances that survivors of trauma must live with." And I think maybe this question goes to even for people in such difficult -- even children in such difficult circumstances how can they develop the resilience that will help them overcome these traumas?
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, that's a great question. It's such a difficult question because, again, I don't want to say, oh, they should just focus on being happy because -- because these kind of traumas can really -- and they can affect your day to day happiness. But a couple of answers to that one is, you know, at least, part of the time I think it is possible, even when you have a very difficult life, to focus on something that you enjoy.
LYUBOMIRSKYSo one example I like to use is I have a friend whose mother was dying. And it was just a horrible, horrible time in her life. But for one hour every day she did something for herself. Like, she would go to the farmers market and just, sort of, enjoy herself. And she didn't think about the horrible stuff that was happening at home. And so she wasn't in denial. You know, she was -- she was coping. And so -- so I think part -- so you can spend, you know, at least, a little bit, part of your day, sort of, not focusing on -- on the trauma.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd you mentioned resilience. The resilience is so important. In fact, research shows that -- that kids who are resilient one reason that makes them so successful is that other people, kind of -- they appeal to other people. They, kind of, somehow attract help and support from others. So that is really critical to get support from others.
PAGEI'd like to thank the social worker who sent us that note for her perspective. Let's go to Shawn. He's calling us from St. Louis. Hi, Shawn.
SHAWNHi. Thank you for taking my call. I think I should preface this where I'm not a -- I'm not a half empty glass. I'm not a half full glass. I'm just you have half a glass. I don't quite understand the seemingly blanket cover of happiness where instead of a blanket it seems more like a stitch of life. Where, for example, I got a brand new phone. And I really like my phone. My phone actually -- I have a great deal of happiness towards my phone.
SHAWNHowever, there are other areas in my life that -- that I don't feel that same happiness towards. So as I'm dealing with the wider spectrums of -- spectrum of my life, I don't necessarily have that happiness. I do have items within it that do make me happy. So I don't see that as making me a happy person or a sad, angry person. I just see it as a portion of life just like hunger or fulfillment. Having senses of gratification towards goals achieved doesn't make me happy throughout my life. It just is a stitch in the blanket -- that blanket that covers everything.
PAGEAll right, Shawn. Thanks very much for your call.
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, you know, it's some interesting points you make. I mean the -- what determines happiness is very complicated. And some of it are big things like our relationships or how much we enjoy or job. And some of them are little things. You know, you talk about enjoying your phone. And, you know, research (word?) adaptation suggests that you're not going to enjoy that phone forever. You know, you're going to start taking it for granted. And then you're going to probably an even nicer phone with, sort of, nicer features.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd so -- but, you're right. I mean there's many different factors that play a role in happiness. And those factors also differ for different people. And so we have to, kind of -- one of the things that I say in my book is that we have to, kind of, discover what it is that makes us happy. And then do more of those things.
PAGESo here's a note -- a comment we got via email not posted on Facebook. But it is about Facebook. And it's from Claude. He writes, "How should one deal with Facebook to be happier versus bummed out? Please comment on the effect of reading about friends' wonderful lives, their parties, travels, professional, academic accomplishments on one's feeling of happiness." Does having -- looking at Facebook and seeing someone post about great things that are happening, does that make us feel more happy? Or does that make us feel a little worse about ourselves?
LYUBOMIRSKYOh, don't get me started on Facebook. But, yeah, you know, a lot of what happens on Facebook is, what I guess you would call, boasting. It's, you know, sort of, people talking about the great things that are happening to them. And that -- that can make us less happy. This is what's called social comparisons. Lots of research that shows that when we pay a lot of attention to how other people are doing, that makes us less happy.
LYUBOMIRSKYNow some of us don't tend to care. You know, we might just, sort of, skim that over. And it doesn't really -- it sort of bounces off of us. But some of us do. On the other hand, Facebook is also great for social support. And so, especially if you're a lonely person or if you're in a new city and you don't have a lot of friends, you know. So there's lots of benefits, as well.
PAGEWell, here's a related email from Diane who writes us from Highland Village, Texas. She says does being an introvert or an extrovert have anything to do with happiness?
LYUBOMIRSKYYeah, yeah, so actually happiness is very much correlated with extroversion. So people who are more extroverted tend to be happier. On the other hand, there are certainly happy introverts. And so it's just a correlation. Sort of, on average the more sociable people are the -- often the more fulfilling their relationships are. But you can be, certainly, a very happy person if you're an introvert.
PAGELet's talk to Ann. She's calling us from Deep River, Conn. Ann, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNHi. Thanks for taking my call. My comment was about the Spock quote. And the idea of pursuing something that -- does happiness come more when you're in the process of getting someplace rather than when you're -- you've arrived at that place.
LYUBOMIRSKYUm-hum. You know, what a great question. And I love bringing back Leonard Nimoy to the show. You know it's a great question because -- in fact, I have a whole section in "The Myths of Happiness" about the importance of striving versus achieving, okay. So it turns out that, sort of, pursuing our goals -- having significant meaningful goals in our life, you know, authentic goals -- goals that are flexible. Goals that are achievable. And pursuing those, sort of, taking those baby steps towards our goals makes people happy.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd that is more important, often, than the actual achievement of it because, as we talked about before, once you achieve that goal it makes you happy for an hour, for three hours, for a day. There's lots of examples of people, you know, people who win the Nobel Prize and they say, oh, that made me really happy for a day, you know. And then they go and do -- back to what they were doing. And so it's really the striving -- the pursuit -- the projects -- the endeavors that are important to happiness.
PAGEAll right. Ann, thanks for your call. Let's talk to Ryan calling us from Edmond, Oklahoma. Ryan, thanks for joining us.
RYANHello. Thank you for having me. I just wanted to comment on some of the things you touched on earlier. My -- I've been married for eight years and I've found that the most long lasting, fulfilling form of happiness is striving to make my wife happy. I've found that -- you know, I'm an engineer, very analytical, excuse me. And I've found that when I obtain goals or, if it's a material -- something material that I -- I think that, you know, I'll be happy once I get it. It never has a lasting power as much as focusing on others. And I've found that that is the -- to me -- the most powerful form of happiness is making others happy.
PAGEAll right, Ryan. Thanks very much for your call.
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, you know, great. Thank you for that question. I have a whole chapter about, sort of, how to spend money in ways to make you happy. And one of the answers is instead of spending money on, sort of, gadgets and objects that sit on your shelf or sit in your garage, you spend money on, you know, other people -- on, sort of, making other people happier.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd you spend money on experiences that promote personal growth, you know, like learning something that promote connections to others, you know. You know, spending money on doing things with other people or making other people happy or philanthropy. You know, helping others, sort of, more directly. And so those are -- those are very, very, powerful influencing our happiness. Much, much more powerful and much more longer lasting than spending your money on possessions.
PAGEAnd what are the things that tend to go in the opposite direction? What are the things people do that correlate with unhappiness?
LYUBOMIRSKYWell, lots of things. I mean one example is rumination. And rumination is basically dwelling, kind of, in circles in a passive way from A to B back to A, back to B, back to A, back to B about, you know, negative things usually. And so -- and I actually used to do research on rumination. People who ruminate just get more depressed, more pessimistic. And so you got to -- when you find yourself dwelling on those negative things you're not problem solving, I should say. You're not getting any insight. You got to redirect your attention to something else.
PAGESo that's when something bad happens. Maybe you mess up something at work and you go home that night and you think, oh, I can't believe I did that. Oh, no, I did that. Why did I do that? That would be a bad thing to do.
LYUBOMIRSKYExactly. And that's not productive. So, I mean, problem solving is important. Sometimes when there's something bad happens you've got to deal with it. You got to think about what to do next. And that's -- that's, sort of, a systematic, kind of, analytical type of problem solving. And what I'm talking about is that, kind of, repetitive dwelling that doesn't do anyone any good.
PAGESo you should -- and something negative happens you should analyze it, but you shouldn't ruminate on it. But if something good happens should you do the reverse?
LYUBOMIRSKYThat's right. So it's actually, kind of, an interesting asymmetric effect. So when it comes to the best things in life, the positive events, you want to replay them, kind of, like playing back a video tape. You don't want to analyze. Like, think about the happiest day of your life. Maybe it's your wedding day. Or maybe it's a vacation that you took. You don't want to ask yourself, oh, gee, why did it happen? And what could have happened differently? You want to just replay it, kind of, as opposed to analyze it.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at email@example.com. Now we've been talking about the study of happiness, the effort to define happiness for people to figure out how happy they are. Here's an interesting note from Julie. She writes us, "I feel like I am generally a happy person and content in my job. Then I took a happiness-at-work survey which scored my happiness at work as quite low. Although there have been no substantial changes in my office, just knowing the score has made me less happy at work. I miss my blissful ignorance. When is self interest not necessarily a good thing?"
LYUBOMIRSKYWow. That is very interesting. I wonder why you got that low score. Well, you know, again, getting back to happiness is inside not outside. You know, you can control how happy you are at work. I mean if you liked your job before you can like it again. Focus on the positive. You know, challenge yourself. Try to, you know, engage in new projects. You know, it's under -- your happiness is under your control.
PAGEI would also say that I would trust your own gut more than a happiness-at-work survey that you take. So, Julie, I think you should just score yourself as being happy at work. Here's an email we got from Angela. She writes, "I can relate to the holiday happiness not meeting my expectations. My birthday is December 23. And I found myself in 2012 being very upset that very few family remembered me or contacted me on my birthday. Even though this is an issue every year, this last birthday has been especially difficult for me. My expectation was that I would hear from the ones I love as I do for them on their birthdays." I wonder what you'd advise Angela on this.
LYUBOMIRSKYYou know, I have a December birthday, as well. So I have that issue. Yeah, you know, that's a tough one. You know, you could talk to your family members. But, again, you know, it's about attention. It's about -- I mean if you dwell, I mean, we were just talking about rumination. If you ruminate about, oh, I'm so upset because no one called me on my birthday, that's going to affect your happiness, sort of, almost more than what actually happened. And so, sort of, it's, sort of, up to you how much you let it affect you. And if it's really important then you want to do something about it and, sort of, call them up.
PAGEAlex from Houston, Texas has sent us an email saying, "Can your guest comment on the phrase expect nothing and you'll never be disappointed." I wonder if Angela might expect no one to contact her on her birthday and then just be delighted when anyone remembers.
LYUBOMIRSKYThis is actually a much more, sort of, subtle question than it appears because, you know, a lot of what I talk about, the research about hedonic adaptation, suggests that what's really toxic is our expectations. You know, well, because our expectations are always rising. You know, we move into a new house and then we want an even bigger house. And so it seems like the implication is that we should just, sort of, lower our expectations. And I think that is not the case. Having high expectations is good for lots of reasons. They can turn into self fulfilling prophecy. So I don't think that's the -- that's the key. But what we want to do is try not to let our expectations, sort of, escalate too much. And there's, sort of, ways to, sort of, reign them in that I discuss.
PAGEHere's a question posted on Twitter. And we've gotten a couple other comments like this one. "I would like to hear about the influence of faith on happiness."
LYUBOMIRSKYYes, great question. In my book, "The How of Happiness" I have a whole chapter on religion and spirituality. People who are religious and spiritual are happier than those who are not. Now, the key question, though, is why, you know. And what researchers believe is that a lot of it has to do with the social support, the, kind of, the community network that, kind of, belongingness that people feel when they're part of a religious community, a faith community.
LYUBOMIRSKYAnd also there is a, sort of, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, especially when bad things happen that help you cope when you're spiritual religious. But if you're spiritual or religious or you don't have a strong faith you can -- you can get those kinds of things from -- anyway, you know, from other things.
PAGEWould you say you're a happy person?
LYUBOMIRSKYYes, I am a moderately happy person not, like, super happy. But I would say moderately happy.
PAGESonja Lyubomirsky. I know I've had trouble with your last name. But thank you so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." And talking about your new book, "The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy but Doesn't. What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does." Thanks for being with us.
LYUBOMIRSKYThank you. It's been a pleasure.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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