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How To Lead a Joyful Life

Psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers discusses how to have and maintain happiness—and joy—through tough times, with PT's Dr. Robert Eptstein.

In 2001, PT Editor-in-chief Robert Epstein, Ph.D., sat down with one of the nation's most famous psychologists, Dr. Joyce Brothers. Here are her views on how we can live a more joyful life.

Dr. Epstein : Recently, I saw your article in Parade magazine called "You Can Lead a More Joyful Life." What's the gist?

Dr. Brothers : For many years psychologists have been doing research on helping people deal with their problems. Now I'm seeing research on how you can make your life more joyful, a life where you're happy to get up in the morning.

A lot of people seem to believe that if you make a lot of money, you're going to be happy. Does that actually work?

You can't buy happiness. We all seem to have a set point for happiness, which is probably genetically as well as environmentally affected. A great windfall can make us joyous for the moment, but after a while we discover that there are all sorts of downsides to it. For example, lottery winners who work a day-to-day job may think that this will mean happiness for life. But it doesn't turn out that way. They find that their co-workers feel resentful. They lose friends because some try to borrow money. It's not exactly what they thought.

Well, if money doesn't guarantee happiness, and if genes in fact have something to do with it, how much control do we have over our destiny? Can we make ourselves happy?

I think we can. God makes sure no tree touches the sky, so we all have tragedies in our lives. When terrible things happen—let's say an unexpected illness, or you hurt yourself and are unable to walk properly again—you can learn techniques to help you put joy and zest in your life again.

In your article you make some very specific suggestions. One of them is to make an inventory—a happiness inventory. How do you do that?

Sit down and think about all the things that are wonderful. I never heard of anyone on their deathbed saying, "Gee, I wish I'd sold 50,000 more widgets." Almost invariably they say their greatest happiness has come from their family and from the people they love. So when you start to look at all the good things, you get a perspective on the bad things.

I've always been fascinated with people who remain happy through tough times. Who are they?

They're people who aim to be happy. Most of us don't make happiness a priority. We race through the lists of things we ought to do, we get to bed exhausted, we get up in the morning and dread the day. But there are people who have found that happiness is a byproduct of doing what they want to do. They pursue their own interests and say no to happiness-busters—people who are esteem-snatchers, who are critical of you and your goals, and who do nothing but complain.

Americans are now popping pills to make themselves happy. What are your feelings about that?

Pills are helpful for some people. Most of the studies indicate that for people who are very depressed, a combination of talk therapy and drug therapy can be a temporary solution. Ultimately, people have to learn the techniques—through talk therapy—that make their lives brighter and better. I think that generally we're better off with a combination of both therapies if we need them. But we don't want to spend our lifetime taking pills.

In Huxley's novel, Brave New World , everyone took a perfect drug that made them happy all the time, with no side effects. Should people want such a drug?

I would hope that they wouldn't, because it is the contrast in life that really brings happiness. If you live in sunny weather day after day, you begin to take it for granted. If every once in a while it rains, you then appreciate your sunshine. That's what happens in our lives—it's the change that makes us appreciate what we have. There are no wild ups without a certain amount of wild downs.

I worry that pop culture promises happiness to everyone, especially through the purchase of products. What's your take?

We need better skills, not more products. There was a commercial years ago for a hair cream which said that a little dab will do you. A man could put a little on his hair and the women would come out of the woodwork and attack him. Sometimes we think that life owes us that kind of happiness—that 'here we are, now life should come out and attack us with wonderful experiences.' But we've got to meet it more than half way.