Is there anything to be happy about in today’s news? As a scientist and an Obama supporter, these days I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Every other news headline appears to send a contradictory message. One warns of the economy in free fall, sending jitters, another about the Obama administration recommitting to serious science or eradicating some nasty piece of legislation loitering from the last 8 years, prompting cheers.
Sometimes I think our country has gone nuts. We have collapsing financial markets, unprecedented housing foreclosures, $4 gas, and an emperor without any clothes on perambulating in the midst of an incredibly critical presidential election. But despite everything, many people (myself included) have a remarkable capacity to maintain optimism and confidence and even some cheer – about ourselves and the world around us.
As I was watching Michael Phelps receive his 14th gold medal—what a week!—this is what I was thinking: “How could anything in this 23-year old swimmer’s life ever top this?” And: “After he comes down from the high, will he ultimately end up less happy than the rest of us mere mortals?”
I begin with a bit of self-disclosure. I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. (Yes, maybe even less than Richard Dawkins.) But this doesn’t mean that I’m not open-minded about research on happiness and religion. As I write in my book, The How of Happiness, just because (most) religious beliefs cannot be empirically tested or falsified doesn’t mean that the consequences of having religious faith, participating in religious life, or searching for the sacred cannot be studied. Indeed, a growing body of psychological science is suggesting that religious folks are happier, healthier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious ones.
As an experimental social psychologist, my job is not to analyze anyone’s personality, let alone an individual whom I’ve never seen larger than in a 42-inch image. However, Robert Draper’s and Scott McClellan’s characterizations of George W. Bush as a staunch optimist lead me to ask, “How much optimism and confidence is good for world leaders and how much is too much?”
Always emphasizing how much of our happiness is within our control, Sonja Lyubomirsky addresses the "scientific how" of her happiness research, demystifying the many myths that unnecessarily complicate its pursuit.