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4 Myths (and 6 Truths) About Achieving Happiness

Research-based strategies to increase fulfillment and flow.

Why aren’t I happier—and why aren’t you? 

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

The Declaration of Independence enshrines our pursuit of happiness. So why aren’t we better at it? According to recent research, it turns out that much of what we think we know about happiness and how to achieve it either isn’t true or is vastly oversimplified.

Let’s start with four myths:

1. Don’t worry, be happy.

Yes, I love that song, too, but it unfortunately draws on how we think of happiness and unhappiness as polar opposites, one balancing out the other. This misunderstanding has us indulging in all kinds of “if only” thinking—based on the idea that erasing one bad thing in our lives will necessarily make us instantly happy: “If only I had a better job, I’d be happy.” “If only my relationship to my lover/spouse/parent/sibling were better, I’d be happier.” "If only I made more money, I’d be happier.” In fact, two separate behavioral systems govern our reactivity to positive and negative events in our lives—worrying and being happy operate independently. Sorry, Messrs. Marley and McFerrin.

2. Happiness can be lasting.

Actually, the very opposite is true. The psychological term for this is “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill.” As explained by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, human beings get used to the changes in their lives that originally made them happy. You know how you’re positive that one thing—a promotion or a new job, a new house, a new relationship, a Jaguar or a Chanel bag—will make you happy? Well, it will—for a time. But then you’ll get used to whatever it is and so, in a matter of time, the promotion just becomes your job, your lover is lovely but familiar, the Jag becomes the car in the driveway, and so on. Add in the fact that human beings are notoriously lousy at predicting what will make them happy (thanks again to Daniel Gilbert) and it’s not hard to see why hanging on to happiness isn’t easy.

3. You control how happy you are.

No less an authority than Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The fact is that a piece of the happiness pie is in your control and a piece isn’t. If you’ve read the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, you already know about the “Happiness Set Point." If you haven’t: About 60% of anyone’s happiness is governed by the “happiness set point” which is genetically determined. Your temperament and personality are a part of the set point. About 10% of the set point has to do with circumstances—although, anecdotally at least, most of us focus on our circumstances when we think about being happier (see the “if only" scenarios above), Circumstances include gender, life events, job, security, and income. Part of the small effect circumstances have on happiness has to do with hedonic adaptation. Now, the good news: Some 40% of happiness is attributable to intentional activity—what we do for ourselves. The real problem is that most of us aren’t focusing on either the right things or approaches that might make us happier.

4. Counting your blessings will make you happier.

This is a very popular trope because it’s so positive and spiritual, and there are magnets stuck to fridges all over America exhorting us to tally up and be happy. It sounds great—and pretty easy—but the science on whether counting your blessings actually works is a very mixed bag. In fact, the grand-daddy of these studies, conducted by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, yielded inconsistent results when comparing the “gratitude” outlook with a control group. And the preponderance of studies show that gratitude doesn’t help at all, in fact; in fairness, only two show that people’s sense of well-being was increased.

So what to do? Fall on your happiness sword and give it up? Are there ways of making yourself happier than you are at this very second? It turns out there are:

1. Work on maximizing your happiness.

When I was a kid, I was struck by how differently people ate yummy things like Oreos and ice cream cones. It seemed to be that there were two distinct and separate camps. There were the “eat it right away” folks—you know who you are!—who would just pop that Oreo right into their mouths or take a huge bite out of the ice cream.  Then there were others—I’m personally in this camp—who approached the cookie and the cone very differently: The Oreo was eaten by taking one side off, eating it slowly, then licking out the icing, and finishing it off by eating the rest. The ice cream cone was slowly licked, leaving the sugar cone (and the ice cream at the very bottom) for last.

The psychological term for such maximizing is “savoring,” and the studies on it are revelatory: One, conducted by Jordi Quidbach and Elizabeth Dunn, suggests that an abundance of something pleasurable can make it harder to savor it. They used chocolate in their studies (of course) and found that participants who gave up chocolate for a week were made happier by eating it than those who had been given unlimited access to it or those in the control condition who just continued to eat their normal allotment of candy. Making the good things in your life more of a “treat” or a rarity may actually make you happier for longer. 

2. Realize that less is more when it comes to material things.

I say this as someone who loves her things as much as the next person, but it turns out that when it comes to being made happy by things that cost money—be they possessions or vacations or other satisfying experiences—the very fact that you can get them actually cuts down on your ability to savor them. According to studies conducted by Fred Bryant, the playing field isn’t precisely level when it comes to being able to savor; some of us are better at it than others. If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, chances are that you’re good at savoring: Do you get pleasure out of looking forward? Can you enjoy something before it happens? Do you find it easy to hang on to a good feeling? Do you store up happy memories so you can revisit them? If, on the other hand, you are uncomfortable anticipating things, find it hard to get excited ahead of time, don’t like looking back, or tend to feel disappointed when you reminisce, you’re probably not very good at savoring. 

3. Take action to be happier.

This part takes a bit of self-knowledge and reflection because the action or goal has to be suited to your talents and abilities. If I were to embark on taking ballet lessons as a way of making myself happier, for example, I can guarantee that my happiness would decrease. Setting impossible or unattainable goals for yourself won’t increase your sense of well-being at all. My own take-away lesson—based on the research I did for my new book, Mastering the Art of Quitting—is that much of the work you need to do to make yourself happier has to do with reflecting on and knowing what you should be persisting at and what you need to quit and let go of. Know yourself intimately and you’re more likely to be happy. If you’re an extrovert, then being an artist alone in a studio all day long will not make you happy, no matter how much you love making art. And while the goal of getting in better shape is terrific, if you’re inclined both not to follow through and to beat yourself up about it, that’s not going to make you happier either. Set goals that are attainable; break them down into baby steps, if you need to. Fitting your talents to your goals is also key to achieving “flow.”

4. Take a page from the George Bailey playbook.

Yes, I’m referring to the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. But it’s also the title of a terrific research paper that is both jazzy and completely counterintuitive. The researchers Mink Yung Koo, Sara Agoe, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert (the latter two being gurus on the subject of happiness) asked a simple question: Was it how people thought about a positive event that mattered? In other words, what if, instead of counting your blessings, you subtracted them? (Which is what the angel shows George in the movie.) Guess what? In their fourth study, which examined romantic relationships (all of the participants were in relationships they considered satisfying), the researchers had individuals either write about how they met, how they started dating, and the like or write about how they might not have met or ended up together. It was the second task—the exercise of subtraction—that yielded an increase in positive affect. If you want to feel happier about someone or something in your life, journal or think about your life without that person or experience.

5. Work on managing your negative emotions.

Positive and negative affect are governed by different behavioral systems, but there’s no question that being on a more even emotional keel will make your happiness last longer, especially if you’re prone to ruminating or worrying. As suggested by the work of Ethan Kross, Ozlem Auduk, and Walter Mischel, a winning strategy requires two steps to help you manage the fallout from a bad experience: First, step away, choosing a distanced perspective, almost as if you are seeing the experience happen to someone else in your mind’s eye. (Many of us tend to “relive” an experience, which only immerses us in it again, and inevitably stirs up the same negative emotions.)  Then, instead of focusing on “what” you were feeling—which, again, thrusts you back into the moment and is likely to make you re-experience the anger, frustration, or hurt you felt initially—focus on “why” you felt it. In combination with a distanced perspective, this is a more analytical and, hence, an emotionally “cooler” response. Understanding why—“Because my spouse/lover/friend dismissed my feelings,” “Because I was tired of being told to ‘get over it,’" etc.—takes us into heart of our feelings and helps us deal with them.

6. Focus on getting into "Flow."

I’m drawing on the work of Mihalyi Czikszentimihalyi here, as articulated in his book, Flow, which asserts that deep involvement and connection are the way into enjoyment and happiness. “Flow” is what a writer feels when the work is going well, or what a runner feels when he or she hits his or her stride, when an artist knows that the sketch just finished is the sketch—but flow can be experienced by anyone in any line of work or any activity. Czikszentimihalyi delineates elements that characterize flow, among them—and this is important—that you are doing something for which you are well-suited (in other words, your gifts and talents are equal to activity's challenges); that the activity provides immediate feedback (you can see that you are making progress or that what you’re doing is good); and that you get so involved as to be able to remove yourself from the worries and frustrations of life. Choosing your activities with flow in mind will increase your sense of well-being.

There is much in the digital age that removes us from flow, especially the constant interruption of texts, messages, and email. I notice it in my own life and wonder about people who, faced with constant distraction at work, may actually have jobs that should put them in flow but who still don’t experience it. Happiness and enjoyment, according to this research at least, require immersion.

Source: Copyright 2013 Diane Garisto

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  • Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
  • Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.”  Review of General Psychology, vol.9, no.2. 111-141.
  • Emmons, Robert A and Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Bring in Daily Life.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 86, no. 2 (2003), 377-389.
  • Bryant, Fred. “Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBA): A Scale for measuring beliefs about savouring, “ Journal of Mental Health, vol.12, no.3 (2003), 175-196.
  • Quoidbach, Jordi. and Elizabeth W. Dunn,  Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation.  Social Psychological and Personality Science. published online 31 January 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1948550612473489
  • Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.
  • Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Walter Mischel. “When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions.” Psychological Science, 16, vol.9 (2005), 709-715.
  • Czikszentimihaly, Mihaly.  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Copyright © 2013 by Peg Streep