This article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Indianapolis Woman.
Everyone wants to be happy. The question is, of course, what makes us happy? Psychologist Martin Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness, offers some answers. Combining the insights of the great philosophers with recent research, he presents an in-depth approach—and shatters some popular notions.
Myth #1: Wealth brings happiness.
This cultural belief makes us productive members of society, but it doesn't lead us to contentment. Research indicates that after our basic needs are met and we live comfortably, more money fails to makes us happier. Even lottery winners do not boast of great happiness one year after their windfall. In 1978, social psychologist Philip Brickman studied past lottery winners in Illinois. They reported less pleasure in daily activities than non-winners. In a British study, winners reported a minimal increase in happiness; how long this slight boost lasts remains unknown.
According to other research findings, our attitude toward money counts. If we over-emphasize the importance of material success, we are less likely to be content. We're putting our eggs in the wrong basket—which leads to the next myth.
Myth #2: Getting what we want makes us happy.
At first it does. But here's the catch: Although we feel happy when we buy those snappy Italian shoes, make our first million or kiss the man of our dreams, our enjoyment fades with time. Psychologists have named this dreary fact of life “habituation.” Brickman referred to it as “the hedonic treadmill.” As he described it, with every high, a feeling of indifference sets in and then a new level of striving. We continually want something more or different.
So, what's wrong with us? Apparently nothing. Seligman explains that's how we're wired. The neurons in our brain fire only when confronted with new information around us.
“At the level of the whole brain, we notice events that are novel and disregard those that are not,” he says. “The more redundant the events, the more they merge into the unnoticed background.” In other words, we inevitably take things for granted.
Fortunately, there are ways around this. Mindfulness, a practice that helps us experience the present anew, proves an excellent antidote. So does pacing our pleasures and mixing them up. For example, instead of always eating the same flavor of ice cream, we might alternate with another. Or instead of listening to our new CD every day, we might listen to it every few days.
Myth #3: Younger people are happier than older people.
In our youth-oriented culture, this belief runs rampant. Seligman challenges it by citing a hefty study of 60,000 adults from 40 nations. The results showed that life satisfaction increases somewhat with age. The intensity of emotion changes more than anything else. Older people experience less highs and lows. Instead of grumpy, perhaps we become mellow as we age—and a little happier with our lives.
Myth #4: The more suffering you experience, the more unhappy you are.
Seligman makes a surprising statement: The less fortunate are, by and large, just as happy as the more fortunate.
Initially when bad things happen, we experience emotional pain. However, our unhappiness usually wanes with time. After studying lottery winners, Brickman studied people who had experienced the opposite: tragedy. He interviewed accident victims who had become either quadriplegic or paraplegic. Although their present happiness was somewhat lower than people who were not paralyzed, they rated their pleasure from daily activities the same.
Later research presents the same findings. Within a few years of their accidents, paraplegics reported feeling only slightly less happy than those who were not paralyzed, says Seligman. Of extreme quadriplegics, 84 percent rated their lives as average or above average.
It seems that we have a set-point for happiness. Regardless of the good and bad things that happen to us, we eventually return to our baseline level. Seligman cautions that this gradual rebound does not diminish our suffering—and certainly there are exceptions. In one study, people who lost a child or spouse in a car wreck were still depressed 4 to 7 years after the event. The family caregivers of Alzheimer's patients report decreased happiness over time. But many negative and tragic events do not devastate people forever. This explains the inspirational stories of people who not only survived such horrors as the holocaust but regained hope and their love of life.
Myth #5: We cannot change our level of happiness.
If you're the melancholy type, you're not doomed to a life of depression. Although genes play a role in happiness, they aren't the only factor. Seligman estimates that external circumstances account for 8-15 percent of the variance for happiness. While we might not be able to control these, we can change our internal circumstances. He recommends learning to change how we feel about the past, how we think about the future and how we experience the present. He proposes a program of forgiveness and gratitude; challenging our negative beliefs and learning to look forward with hope; and living mindfully.
In addition, he encourages us to seek not only pleasure but fulfillment—that is, fully engaging in our lives and finding meaning. He links this pursuit with developing our personal virtues. Based on the teachings of the major religions and philosophers, he offers this list: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence.
Myth #6: The search for happiness is selfish.
If all we're after is momentary pleasure at whatever cost, we'll be selfish—and most likely not all that happy. But if we pursue a deeper happiness, the kind that comes from developing our strengths and virtues, engaging in challenging activities and giving to others, then we no longer live for ourselves alone.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes that positive emotions like happiness serve a worthy purpose. They help us attract people and build relationships. They put us in an expansive, creative and tolerant mental state in which we are open to new ideas and experiences, explains Seligman. All of this helps us broaden our physical, intellectual and social resources, and it benefits those around us. Unlike depression, true happiness lifts us out of self-absorption.
According to Seligman, positive emotions predict health and longevity, and protect against the ravages of aging. Happiness also is linked with productivity. Generally, people in good moods set higher goals and perform better.
The quest for true happiness is not a selfish one, nor is it an easy one. However, Seligman, ever the optimist, believes each of us can experience authentic happiness. It's up to us.