Everyone wants to be happy, but even revered thinkers have struggled with the how. The Dalai Lama said happiness comes when we practice compassion. Thomas Jefferson claimed it requires "a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits." The ever-optimistic Ernest Hemingway noted that "happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know," yet the hyper-intelligent Albert Einstein had a simple prescription: "a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin."
While opinions and famous quotations on happiness abound, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has spent the last 24 years immersed in the science behind it. She's written two books on the subject: The How of Happiness in 2008 and her follow-up this year, The Myths of Happiness. We spoke with her about happiness, work and why dream jobs don't exist — and she suggested a quick way anyone can feel happier instantly.
It seems as though everyone, scientists included, is talking a lot more about happiness lately. What do you attribute that to?
When I first started doing research on happiness in 1989, there was really only one scientist working on it. Now there are neuroscientists and economists studying happiness and whole countries interested in measuring it. Lots of things are bubbling to the surface.
We also have really good measures of happiness now, which means it's easier to study. That means we're more likely to disseminate knowledge about it. Scientists are also writing more about what they do. It used to be we would just write for each other and publish it in scholarly journals, but now we're writing trade books and speaking to reporters.
In a larger sense, you could argue that happiness is a luxury. When people don't have their basic needs met, they're not going around thinking about whether they're happy. The more comfortable we are, the more time and freedom we have to consider, Well, am I happy? We now have the luxury to think about our happiness.
So does the fact that we have time to think about our happiness mean we're happier in general?
Not necessarily. United States surveys show that general levels of happiness have been very flat for the last 50 years. But there are so many factors involved. I think the more comfortable we are, the more our standards rise. With all these things we have now, we're used to having more, so our expectations and aspirations are higher.
Speaking of aspirations, how important are our jobs to our happiness?
Work is a very important part of happiness, in part because we spend so many hours of our lifetime working.
But you uncovered some myths about job satisfaction.
One of the myths I talk about is that jobs should be perpetually exciting. When we get a new job, we often get a boost in happiness because it's novel and exciting at first, but over time we adapt. We have to keep in mind that this is just an ordinary process. All of us are going to adapt. We're not going to be as passionate about our jobs on the second or fifth or tenth year as we were the first year.
Knowing that, is it unrealistic to think any job will become your reason to get up every day?
I think it is unrealistic, especially over the long term. We're not hard-wired to be passionate and excited all the time. In fact, we probably wouldn't want to be because it would be hard to get things done. But our expectations are way too high. I talk in the book about a lot of people who are constantly in search of the 'dream job.' And there is no dream job.
When you think about what your dream job is, maybe it's to be a spy or a marine biologist or an actor or a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. All of those jobs involve downsides, whether there are grueling parts or boring parts or stressful parts or commutes. I think we have to be more realistic. That doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for something higher, but for many of us, I think we're always just looking for something new. It's very human. You can argue that humans wouldn't make progress if we were always satisfied with the status quo. We always want more.
We all know people who flit from one job to another. I think there's a lot of costs to that. Same with relationships, with cars, with houses, we always want more. We just have to be aware of human psychology and make our decisions after we recognize how human psychology works.
It sounds like we can't necessarily trust our judgment about when it's time to leave a job for one that might make us happier. How would you suggest people figure that out?
The first step is understanding the process of how we all adapt and how you're going to adapt to your job no matter what it is. Be really aware of that. Then go visit your friends' jobs. You'll get a realistic perspective about the alternatives, because the other thing we tend to do is focus on a particular dimension we're unhappy with. Spend time doing research on what other people really do and try not to have your expectations escalate, because that's one of the barriers to happiness with our job or anything else. Awareness and knowledge is the first step. Then after that I can't tell people what to do. It's a personal decision.
As a 'happiness expert,' do you feel a certain pressure to be happy all the time yourself?
Not really. Fortunately, I'm generally a pretty happy person. I'm not super happy, but I'm moderately happy. Some people study what they don't have. That's not the case for me. As a scientist, my full-time job is doing research. Most of the time I'm meeting with my students, writing, analyzing data, designing experiments. I don't worry about expectations of my own happiness.
But when you do want to boost your own happiness, is there a simple activity you turn to?
In my first book, I described 12 categories of activities that people can engage in to be happier. I really use them all. One of the strategies that I turn to a lot is how to live in the present and savor the moment. I'm very future-oriented, like a lot of busy people, so it's hard to savor the moment. I definitely take those recommendations to heart. When I'm with my kids, I really try to forget about other things and just enjoy being with them.
What would you recommend to someone who's reading this and feeling a bit down?
One simple thing that's not so easy to do is to try to be grateful for what you have. It sounds so trite and kind of hokey, and yet if you truly feel grateful, it's a very powerful determinant of happiness. I've done studies where I've had people once a week or every day think about three things that went well and that they're grateful for. They can be small. Even someone who's depressed is not going to have a hard time finding three little things.
Also, anything to do with interacting with others and helping others. No matter how down you are yourself, when you help others the focus is on the other person and not you. When you're down, self-focus can really be toxic because you're just ruminating about yourself and how unhappy you are. Anything that takes the focus off you and onto something else is really effective.
What question about happiness are you looking to answer next?
One thing I'm working on now is the question of whether parents are happier than people who don't have kids. We're looking at how old the parent is, how old the child is, are you married, are you making a lot of money, do you have social support. So, for example, we're finding that older parents are happier. If you have kids when you're young, you tend not to be as happy as your friends who don't have kids. If you're married, you're happier as a parent. If you have kids who are in your custody, you're happier as opposed to the non-custodial parent. Empty nesters tend to be pretty happy.
We're also really interested in how happiness can spread across a social network. We just finished a study in Spain where we asked some people at a large company to do acts of kindness for others in the workplace. These were called the 'givers.' They all got a list of 'receivers,' kind of like a Secret Santa list. What we found is that the givers got happier and the receivers got happier, but also the people who just interacted with the givers and receivers got happier and themselves started doing more acts of kindness in the workplace. It was kind of an inspiration effect and a pay-it-forward effect, and actually, the closer they were to the givers and receivers, the more they were influenced to do acts of kindness.
It sounds like we should all be doing more acts of kindness then, including at work.
Yes — the little things and big things.
Photo: Dana Patrick