In The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California–Riverside, examines what she calls the holy grail of psychology: figuring out how to be happy.
Why study happiness?
It was somewhat serendipitous. I started graduate school at Stanford in 1989, and the very first day that I met my adviser, we started talking about happiness—what it is, why some people are happier than others, and so on. Now it’s this hot topic and neuroscientists are studying it. It’s kind of like the holy grail: how can you become happier?
Well, how can you?
Understanding that there are no hard and fast rules is key. People are very resilient. There are few life changes that make us permanently unhappy. The key is in the mindset—it’s how we see a situation and react that determines our happiness. Another key point is attention. What you pay attention to determines your experience.
So finding happiness is hard work...
People don’t like to hear that. A lot of women’s magazines ask me for “how to become happier in five minutes” tips, and happiness is really a lifelong process. There are probably a hundred ways to be happier, a hundred ways to look at your life or yourself. You can direct your attention to lots of things, and you have to choose what fits for you and your lifestyle.
Why are happiness myths (e.g., that marriage will automatically make one happy) so toxic?
We have these ideas about what will make us happy, what will make us unhappy. When our expectations are not met, we think there’s something wrong with us, or with our job or relationship. We don’t realize that this is just a natural process. Everyone adapts to positive life changes; adaptation is a key topic of this book. But I think people cause themselves a lot of unneeded anguish not realizing that most people go through these types of changes and emotions. If we were able to understand that better, I think we’d be able to cope better.
Which of your experiments stands out?
One involved going into fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classrooms in Vancouver. We asked one group of these kids to do three acts of kindness a week for six weeks. We had another group write down places they visited that week, like Grandma’s house or a baseball game. What we found is that both groups of kids got happier over time, but the kids who did three acts of kindness became more popular with their peers. Many of the acts of kindness were done at home, but they were still happier and more popular at school, perhaps because of feeling good about helping Mom at home.