By Melinda Welsh
This article was published on 08.09.07
The big happy
Six lies we tell ourselves about happiness
Pilar Rivera was devastated by the diagnosis. Breast cancer was the last thing the single mom from Davis thought she’d be facing at age 37. Rivera prepared for an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and worried about what would become of the life she’d built for herself and her nearly 3-year-old daughter. Then, somewhere along the path on what she calls her “big journey” with cancer, she was surprised to find what she least expected.
“I spent all my life looking for happiness,” said Rivera, now 42, describing just how much her life has changed since the diagnosis. “Cancer allowed me to reach a whole new level of happiness. Things became condensed. … It opened my eyes to the good things I’d been missing.”
Sages, poets and religious leaders throughout history have attempted to open our eyes, as Rivera’s were, to truths about the elusive state of happiness. Today, we are witnessing the growth of what effectively constitutes a Happiness Industry, with its best-selling books, costly well-being seminars, national summits and “happiness” courses being taught by hundreds of college professors across the country. The industry even has an academic core—a new development in the field of psychology that promotes a “science of happiness.” Surprisingly, experts say the obsession has flourished because (not in spite) of the fact that we live in a post-9/11 world, where fear of terrorism, endless war and global warming seem omnipresent.
Though few would suggest a life-threatening diagnosis as a prerequisite for this yearned-for state, some would agree on particular attributes that seem common in people who manage to find happiness. Start with a committed partner and family. Add sound health, financial security, a good sex life and close friends. Mix in meaningful work. Is it really that simple?
Not quite. Because many, including the Dalai Lama, instead insist that true happiness only can arrive if accompanied by compassionate acts, calmness of mind and a positive nature.
A first step, at least, is to isolate some of the wrong ideas we have about happiness.
1. Happiness can’t be taught.
Sex with her boyfriend 30 feet underwater while wearing scuba gear was how one young female student fulfilled her college homework assignment. A male student in the same class satisfied “the assignment” by attending a NASCAR race where he “smoked, drank and had sex.”
Examples like these from a science of well-being course taught at George Mason University in Virginia were made infamous in a January 2007 Sunday New York Times Magazine article, “Happiness 101.” Surprisingly, the story went on to explain how the two students mentioned above (plus plenty of others) discovered by the end of the semester that they actually experienced a deeper sense of happiness after undertaking a second assignment that had them perform an act of selfless kindness.
Wait a minute. Being kind brings more happiness than scuba sex or a NASCAR party? Apparently, you don’t have to be a preacher to say yes. A growing fleet of psychologists—including one who teaches at UC Davis, Dr. Robert Emmons—believes there is scientific evidence to back this up. Some 200 colleges and graduate schools in America now offer “positive-psychology” courses that basically teach students about the science of happiness and its often accompanying features—gratitude, contentment, flow, satisfaction, meaning, resilience, pride, optimism. Since people generally can gauge how happy they are, results can be quantified, say the researchers. And if you can quantify something, you can investigate it scientifically.
It was less than a decade ago when positive psychology began making in-roads as a sub-discipline in a field previously famous for its obsession (think Freud) with the idea of humans as troubled, anxious, guilty, tortured beings in need of repair. It was 2002 when Martin Seligman, now president of the American Psychological Association, published Authentic Happiness, which laid out the fundamentals of positive psychology: Don’t focus on flaws, concentrate on strengths, applaud human resilience.
Along with Seligman came people like UCD’s Emmons, a psychology professor who studies the effects of gratitude. In his experiments, subjects are asked to keep track of their experiences of gratefulness and note changes in sleep habits, positive states and enthusiasms. His results, which indicate that grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions and life satisfaction, have been published over the past eight years in numerous scientific journals. His new book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, hits the bookstores this week.
“When people consciously practice grateful living, their happiness will go up and their ability to withstand negative events will improve,” said Emmons. But it doesn’t come without making a conscious effort. Adopting a lifestyle of gratitude means people must give up a “victim mentality,” says Emmons, and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness acquired through our consumer culture.
On a more global scale, Emmons has noted: “What’s exciting about gratitude is that it contributes not only to individuals but collectively to society. It’s a civic virtue.”
2. We can predict what will make us happy.
Soon after her cancer diagnosis (but before her first chemotherapy session), Pilar Rivera made the decision to crop off her waist-length hair and donate it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit group that gives wigs to medically disadvantaged kids. Perhaps this early gesture was an opening salvo from Rivera in her bid for a new life and lease on happiness.
She soon found her generosity returned to her manifold. Rivera still gets choked up recounting the deeds of caring and compassion that her UCD work colleagues, friends and acquaintances astounded her with throughout her illness and recovery. Through a catastrophic leave program at UCD, her co-workers donated an unheard of year’s worth of vacation time to help with her ordeal.
“I had moved around a lot before Davis looking for a place to be happy,” says Rivera of her pre-cancer tendency to move to a new city every few years. But her medical crisis helped her find a new truth: “I don’t have to run anymore. Happiness is not a place out there somewhere. It’s inside of you.”
Nothing in Rivera’s life up to then would have made her predict how she would come to discover this truth.
Renowned Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote in his recent book, Stumbling on Happiness, that, indeed, humans aren’t very skilled at predicting what will or won’t make them happy in the future. Gilbert, who criticizes the positive-psychology movement for looking “too much like a religion,” calls Stumbling “a scientific explanation of the limitations of the human imagination and how it steers us wrong in our search for happiness.” (He does, however, agree that we humans are very skilled at adapting to whatever life brings.)
People make mistakes when they try to predict what will make them happy, he writes. Gilbert teamed up with other academics to do research that found people “dramatically and regularly mispredict the emotional consequences of future events,” small and large. Apparently we humans tend to overestimate how good we’ll feel when things go right and how bad we’ll feel when things don’t.
Kathy Fong, a “certified professional life coach” from Sacramento, believes that happiness often comes about because someone has made a choice to do something they wouldn’t have predicted at another time in their life.
“A lot of times people are on old agendas,” she said. “I help them become familiar with who they are today. Coaching is a means by which people can gain greater happiness because it’s based on someone wanting to do something differently.”
Dissatisfaction is valuable, she added. “Harness your dissatisfaction and let it take you someplace because it has lots of energy. It’s like you’ve dug yourself in a ditch and [dissatisfaction] is like a sled pulled by a bunch of dogs. Let them get you out of the hole.”
3. Young people are happier than old people.
The vast marketing machinery of pop culture in America today constantly reminds us how great it is to be young. From music videos to TV commercials, magazine ads to AOL news flashes, all emphasize the utter coolness, hotness, vibrant aliveness that goes with being young. (Not surprisingly, there’s a capitalist logic to it all, since the corporations that fuel our consumer culture are all about cementing the future buying habits of the young.) Anyway, an image is projected that young people are way happier than everybody else.
Well, they’re not. Research indicates instead that the young are quantifiably less happy than the middle-aged or older. In 2005, a Harvard study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 45 percent of college students reported feeling depression deep enough to prevent them from functioning and 94 percent felt “overwhelmed.”
Other research data, including a 2006 “Are We Happy Yet?” study by the Pew Research Center, found that there is a slight variance in happiness by age, with men and women age 18-29 years old categorized as the least happy of all ages.
4. Money can buy happiness.
A preface: It’s true that money can, in fact, buy happiness for those who have very little. If money moves a person into the middle class so they no longer have to struggle for basics (food and shelter), that person is going to be happier. Statistically, the happiness differential between an income of $5,000 and $50,000 is quite significant.
But what’s interesting is that the happiness differential between an income of $50,000 and $50 million is virtually nonexistent. The vacation home in Tahoe? The Lexus? The new speed boat? Research indicates such stuff doesn’t come accompanied by any increased sense of well-being. What’s more, a full 37 percent of people on Forbes list of wealthiest Americans turn out to be less happy than the average American.
This is not a new lesson. In 1974, a seminal University of Southern California study found the U.S. happiness level had remained the same over the period from 1946-1970 despite the fact that incomes had doubled. The same has proven true since: No matter how much higher incomes rise, the happiness level stays put. Statistically, this means regular people have as much a chance at happiness as Bill Gates.
However, none of this seems to change the economy-pumping fact that we don’t believe it’s true. Most of us continue to think: The richer we are, the happier we will be.
“When I don’t have money, then I’m pretty sure that money could buy me some happiness,” confesses local writer Jodi Angel, author of The History of Vegas, a short-story collection that revolves around some wildly unhappy characters. Angel hastens to add, “When I do have money—or maybe one time when I did have money—I don’t think that I was suddenly happier than before.
“Money is a temporary fix, a little bit of duct tape when you really should’ve been spot welding. I think we live under this perpetuated myth that money can buy happiness, but I don’t really see many people with money having more happiness than anyone else. Ask Lindsay Lohan if her money is buying her happiness right now.”
5. Having children makes you happier than not having them.
The number crunchers of happiness have found a few things to be true: Married people are happier than un-married ones. Healthy people are happier than unhealthy ones. Regular churchgoers report a greater sense of well-being than non-attendees. Republicans are slightly happier than Democrats (which is thought to correlate with the previous observation, since conservatives are statistically more likely to be churchgoing than liberals.) Also, most significantly, generally positive outlooks and emotions correlate to 10-year increases in life spans for people without such outlooks. (That’s more than the difference between smokers and non-smokers!)
But the same studies do not turn up the evidence you’d expect when it comes to having children. The Pew’s Are We Happy Yet study determined that married people with children are about equally as happy as married people without children. Harvard professor Gilbert reports that having children actually has a small negative impact on happiness. Predictably, parents report being least happy when their children are toddlers and adolescents, the ages when kids can cause the most parental angst.
According to Gilbert, the entrenched myth that having children makes you happy is kind of an evolutionary joke. “Imagine a species that figures out that children don’t make you happy,” he says. “We have a word for that species: extinct.”
6. With so much suffering in the world, going for personal happiness is selfish.
Remember the ubiquitous smiley-face button? The symbol is now the go-to marketing logo for Wal-Mart, but it’s interesting to note that it soared to its pop-culture zenith in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War, when the country was divided and roiling. Today, with war outstretched and an Earth-altering climate crisis threatening, suddenly “happiness” is everywhere again.
Does attempting a route toward personal happiness constitute a denial of responsibility, a retreat into selfishness?
The Dalai Lama says “no.” Most famously, in his 1998 book The Art of Happiness, he puts forth the idea that the pursuit of happiness is the very purpose of our lives and that the most profound way to gain such happiness is, ultimately, to think of others. True happiness only comes when accompanied by a positive and compassionate attitude and a “calmness of mind” he teaches. After all, happy people don’t wage war, allow others to starve or destroy their planet.
Another way to look at it: As the scuba-diving student reported learning in “Happiness 101,” an unexplored depth of happiness seemed to be accessed by making a selfless contribution to an individual. One might extrapolate that the same goes for giving selflessly to humanity.
“I think we’re more tentative when it comes to allowing ourselves to feel happy,” said writer Angel when asked about happiness in this time of strife. “It seems a selfish state of mind to be happy when we watch the news and there is no hope and so much hurt. But I guess what it comes down to is that idea that we as people are amazing in our strength. … It is in our nature to find our happiness and keep ahold on it.”
As for Rivera, she flat out admits that her cancer diagnosis gave her an exemption from such worries, an “excuse to be fragile.”
Once she’d “shucked away all the extraneous things,” she said, she found a new balance and ability to “slow down, calm down” and, ultimately, experience happiness of the deepest sort. Now she shares it with friends, her community and one small, grateful person who has reported noticing at least one happy change in her mom’s behavior this past year. Laughing, Rivera said, “My daughter says I play more.”