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Video: Sorting through ‘The Myths of Happiness’

TODAY books
updated 1/2/2013 8:43:53 AM ET 2013-01-02T13:43:53

Do you think you know what will truly bring you happiness? In “The Myths of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky examines why the major life events that should make us happy don’t, and why what shouldn’t make us happy so often does. Here’s an excerpt.

Introduction

Nearly all of us buy into what I call the myths of happiness— beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. This reductive understanding of happiness is culturally reinforced and continues to endure, despite overwhelming evidence that our well-being does not operate according to such black-and-white principles.

One such happiness myth is the notion that “I’ll be happy when ____ (fill in the blank).” I’ll be happy when I net that promotion, when I say “I do,” when I have a baby, when I’m rich, and so on. The false promise is not that achieving those dreams won’t make us happy. They almost certainly will. The problem is that these achievements—even when initially perfectly satisfying—will not make us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we believe they will. Hence, when fulfilling these goals doesn’t make us as happy as we expected, we feel there must be something wrong with us or we must be the only ones to feel this way.

The flip side is an equally pervasive, and equally toxic, happiness myth. This is the belief that “I can’t be happy when ____ (fill in the blank).” When a negative change of fortune befalls us, our reaction is often supersized. We feel that we can never be happy again, that our life as we know it is now over.

My relationship is in trouble. I’ve achieved my dreams but feel emptier than ever. My work isn’t what it used to be. The test results were positive. I have huge regrets. What I hope this book will make singularly clear is that although it may appear that some of these major challenges will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions. Indeed, it is our initial reactions that make these turns of events into crisis points in the first place, instead of the foreseeable and even ordinary passages of life that they actually are. Unfortunately, our initial reactions compel us to choose dramatic (and often devastating) response paths. For example, whereas our first response to the realization that our job no longer brings satisfaction might be to conclude that there is something wrong with the job and immediately begin looking for a position elsewhere, the solution with more long-term rewards may be to try instead to reshape and reconsider our job—to revisit and revise our present-day thoughts and feelings.

Do you know what will make you happy?

This book covers ten different adult crisis points—beginning with relationships (marriage, singlehood, kids), moving on to money and work (job malaise, financial success and ruin)—and ending with problems inherent to middle age and beyond (health issues, aging, regrets). Feel free to begin with the crisis points that you most connect to or are most curious about. I expect that all of us will identify with a good portion of the particular challenges and transitions that I describe here, as some of them may represent a part of ourselves as we were yesterday, are today, and will be tomorrow. With age, responsibilities and losses pile up, and life becomes more complicated, more challenging, and sometimes more confusing. Before things start cascading, it’s valuable to take a long and thoughtful look at the major passages and touchstones of our lives, and what motivates our reactions to them.

The Penguin Press

Instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change. However, how you greet them really matters: Science shows that chance does favor the prepared mind. I draw on research from several related fields—including positive psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, and clinical psychology—to help those of you facing consequential turning points to choose wisely. The science I describe will offer you a broader perspective—essentially a birds-eyeview of your unique situation—and push you beyond your expectations. I can’t tell you which path to take, but I can help provide the tools so that you can make healthier and more informed decisions on your own. I can help you achieve that prepared mind, the one that knows where happiness really lies and where it doesn’t.

Our crisis points—times when in an instant we feel our lives will never be the same, when we come to a realization or take in a weighty piece of news—are key moments in our lives. They are the moments that we remember and pivot on, the ones we need to consider and respond to. This is true not just because such moments are “big,” but because even seemingly devastating crossroads can be gateways to positive changes in our lives. Recent research reveals that people who have experienced some adversity (for example, several negative events or life-changing moments) are ultimately happier (and less distressed, traumatized, stressed, or impaired) than those who have experienced no adversity at all. Having a history of enduring several devastating moments “toughens us up” and makes us better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas, big and small. In addition to fostering resilience in general, researchers have shown that making sense of our life’s challenges helps us define and anchor our identities, which bolsters optimism about our futures and fosters more effective coping with ongoing sources of stress. Finally, the experience of negative emotions like grief, worry, and anger during our crisis points—when these emotions are not chronic or severe—can be extremely valuable, as such emotions alert us to threats, wrongs, and problems that require our attention. In summary, learning to look beyond the expectations that accompany the myths of happiness may be uncomfortable and even painful in the beginning, but it has the potential to lead to flourishing and to growth.

Many consequential turning points can be viewed as crossroads from which we can pursue two or more paths. How we react to these moments—which may seem at the time like “points of no return”— will in part determine how their outcomes will unfold. If we understand how the myths of happiness drive our responses, we are more likely to respond wisely. Indeed, failing to grasp the impact of the “I’ll be happy when [I have a partner, job, money, kids]” fallacy may lead us to make very poor decisions—for example, leaving perfectly good jobs and marriages, harming our relationships with our children, squandering our money, and wounding our self-esteem. And, if we continue to believe “I can’t be happy when [I don’t have a partner, money, youth, accomplishments],” we may unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophecy, such that those turning points end up poisoning our happiness and contaminating the still satisfying aspects of our lives.

How we respond to crisis moments—whether we keep our heads down when we should lift them up, or stay put when we should act—may have cascading effects across our lives. In these moments, we choose the future.

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Once upon a time, an old farmer lived in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him well-to-do because he owned a horse, which he used for many years to work his crops. One day his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors gathered to commiserate with him. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors rejoiced. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors visited the farmer to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” said the farmer. The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer replied.

“Joy and woe are woven fine.” William Blake’s line from the poem “Auguries of Innocence” elegantly and simply extracts the kernel of wisdom from this story. It also helps answer the question of why the myths of happiness are wrongheaded. We may think we know whether a particular turning point should make us laugh or cry, but the truth is that positive and negative events are often entwined, rendering predictions about consequences—which may cascade in unexpected ways—exceedingly complex. Similarly, when we consider the single best thing that has happened to us during past years—and the single worst thing—we may be surprised to learn that they are often one and the same. Perhaps we had our hearts broken, but then being single solidified our identity and led us to meet a more ideal mate. Perhaps we were laid off from a longstanding career, but the event prompted us to make the transition to a more exciting field. Or, perhaps we were thrilled after we sold our company for a great deal of money, but now deem it one of the biggest mistakes of our lives. In sum, which events are life changing, and in what ways, is often not immediately knowable. Sometimes an unassailably positive event—winning the lottery, getting promoted, having a child—sets into motion a crisis or deep disappointment, because our less-than-joyful reactions to them violate our notions of what should make us happy. And other times a misfortune—losing a job, a dream, or a life partner—is a gateway to something wonderful, in part because we realize that we were wrong to believe that such events would permanently damage us.

In a series of elegant experiments, University of Virginia professor Tim Wilson and Harvard University professor Dan Gilbert and their colleagues have shown that our key error is that we overestimate how long and how intensely a particular negative life event (such as a diagnosis of HIV or being fired from a cherished job) will throw us into despair, and how long and how intensely a particular positive event (earning lifetime tenure or having our marriage proposal accepted) will throw us over the moon. The primary reason that we do this is neatly summed up by the fortune-cookie maxim: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” In other words, we exaggerate the effect a life change will have upon our happiness because we cannot foresee that we won’t always be thinking about it.

For example, when we try to predict how dejected we will feel after our romance dissolves or how blissful we will feel after we finally have the money to buy the long-dreamed-of beach house, we neglect to consider that during the days, weeks, and months after the event in question, many other events will intervene, thus serving to temper our pleasure or mitigate our pain. Daily hassles (like being stuck in traffic or overhearing a catty comment) and daily uplifts (like running into an old friend) are likely to toy with our emotions to a significant degree and thus buffer the misery of a breakup or dilute the joy of a new home.

Two other forces are at work that conspire to lead us astray in predicting our future feelings. The first is simply our failure to imagine accurately the impact of the transition point we are predicting. For example, for many of us, images of a future marriage comprise romantic picnics for two, drinking champagne by the fire, sex as often as we want, harmonious collaboration on all difficult life decisions, and a cherubic infant sleeping in our arms, with our spouse offering to make all the diaper changes. We don’t tend to visualize the stresses, ups and downs, waning passions, disagreements, misunderstandings, and disappointments of long-term love—all of the things that connive to short-circuit a marriage’s honeymoon period. Similarly, the pictures in our minds of what it would be like to experience joblessness or deep regrets or being single are unduly dark and pessimistic.

The second factor that helps foil our predictions is that we underestimate the strength of what Gilbert and Wilson call our “psychological immune system.” Much as our immune cells protect us from pathogens and disease, it turns out that we have a host of skills and talents that we underappreciate or fail to foresee—from our knack for rationalizing our failures to our capacity to rise to the occasion—that protect us from buckling in the face of adversity or stress. People are quite resilient, and are quick to discount, explain away, or block out negative experiences or transform them into something positive. When we imagine how we would feel after learning that our work hours have been seriously slashed, we don’t appreciate that the initial despondency and self-doubt that we will experience will be softened by our improved fitness (from those extra hours in the gym), our increased closeness with our kids (from those extra hours at the playground), our realization that we never really wanted to be a broker anyway (from late-night tête-à-têtes with our partner), and our sense of growth (from appreciating how the setback has revealed to us strengths that we didn’t even know we had). Don’t get me wrong: The initial wretchedness after a rejection or job loss is unlikely to metamorphose into delight, but studies show that the distress is very likely to be cushioned by our psychological immune system.

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Notably, our psychological immune system operates after positive events as well. As I discuss in detail in chapters 2, 6, and 8, human beings have a tremendous capacity to adapt to new relationships, jobs, and wealth, with the result that even such rewarding life changes yield fewer and fewer rewards with time. This phenomenon, which is called “hedonic adaptation,” is an important theme of the book, because our tendency to get used to almost everything positive that happens to us is a formidable obstacle to our happiness. After all, if we ultimately take for granted our new jobs, new loves, new homes, and new successes, then how can our joy and satisfaction from these things ever endure? To this question, I offer evidence-based recommendations for how to head off or rise above this obstacle and find our way to flourishing and fulfillment.

My argument is that once we understand the misconceptions and biases motivating our reactions, we will understand that no matter how clear the way forward seems, there is no one direct, apposite path or one way of regarding our situation. Instead, there are multiple routes. I hope that reading this book will guide us toward a better understanding of our own unique paths. There is much risk and there is much at risk, for whichever path we choose will have cascading effects for years to come—no do-overs allowed. “For whatever we do,” wrote James Salter in Light Years, his novel about marriage, “even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.”

In his best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell advanced the idea that decisions made in the blink of an eye—based on little information, on pure emotion and instinct—are often better than carefully reasoned and considered ones. The broader culture, fueled by media reports, has picked up this feel-good idea with gusto. After all, the notion of relying on intuition to make important decisions and judgments—of not having to do any work!—is incredibly appealing, especially to American minds yearning for quick fixes.

In this book, I argue that the second—or even third—thought may be the best thought. My approach is, “Think, don’t blink.”

The debate over whether the first thought versus the second (or nth) thought is the best thought has a very long history. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, philosophers, writers, and, in the last decades, social and cognitive psychologists have distinguished between two different tracks on which our brains run when making judgments and decisions.9 The first track (with the uncatchy name of System 1; I’ll call it intuitive) is the one that Gladwell described in Blink. When we rely on our intuitions, gut instincts, or on-the-spot emotions to decide whether we should walk away from our job, we rely on our intuitive system. Such decisions are made so quickly and automatically that we are not aware of what precisely influenced them. In these pages, I will illuminate the misconceptions about our happiness that serve as the influences on each of these first thoughts.

The second track on which our minds operate (labeled by scientists as System 2, but what I’ll call rational ) is much more deliberate. When we rely on reason or rational thought to decide whether to throw over our employer for a new one, we muster energy and effort, we take our time, we systematically and critically analyze, and we may make use of particular principles or rules. This is precisely what this book will call on you—and help you—to do.

During the past half century, a huge literature in psychology has documented the many errors and biases that lead human beings to make poor decisions based on their intuitions.10 To be sure, we often make costly mistakes when making choices. This is because our intuitive system—which many of us put great trust in—typically relies on quick-and-dirty mental shortcuts or rules of thumb (“Did you hear about the shooting at the movie theater? I better watch TV instead”), which often lead us astray. Yet, despite the pitfalls inherent in the intuitive system, our intuitive first thoughts are usually far more compelling than our well-thought-through second and third ones. Indeed, because intuitive judgments often seem to emerge spontaneously, automatically, and unsolicited, we experience them almost like a “given” or an established fact.11 Thus, when we have a strong sense that we must take our job and shove it, even though that sense is rooted in myths about happiness, we accord that intuition extra meaning and import because it “just feels right.” Indeed, we tend to prefer gut instincts even when they are obviously irrational.

I don’t mean to imply that thinking twice or thrice is always the optimal approach, especially when our heads and hearts offer us conflicting advice. But the truth is that our initial reactions (or first thoughts) to crisis points (e.g., “My life is going downhill” or “I’ll never find love again”) are tainted by our biases and governed by fallacies we buy into about what should and shouldn’t bring us happiness. My goal is to lay bare and dismantle these biases and fallacies.

The challenge, of course, is how to do this—how to shift your habitual reactions to major life changes or epiphanies from a purely intuitive approach rooted in misinformation about happiness to a more reasoned one. After you understand the assumptions governing your reactions, you must decide how to act or whether (and how) to change your perspective. In this way, you will replace reliance on the myths of happiness with a prepared mind—a mind equipped to make a better, reason-based decision and to think instead of blink. Consider the case that I focus on in chapter 1—that you are feeling bored in your marriage. Your first thought may be, “I don’t want my husband as much as I used to, so our marriage must not be working, or he must no longer be right for me.” Drawing on theoretical and empirical evidence, I will unmask the fallacy behind your thinking— the notion that marriage is permanently satisfying—and offer recommendations about how to address, remedy, or cope with your situation. How then do you make the decision about next steps in circumstances like these? Psychologists offer several evidence-backed practical suggestions.

First, make a mental note of your initial intuitions or gut reactions about the path you should be taking—perhaps even write them down—and then shelve them for a while. After you spend time thinking through your situation systematically, you may reconsider the initial gut reaction in light of new information or insights. Second, seek the opinion of an outsider (impartial friend or counselor) or simply make an effort to take an objective observer’s perspective. The key is to liberate yourself from the nitty-gritty details of your particular problem (say, that you’re currently experiencing a loss of passion) and try to consider the broader class of problems to which yours belongs (say, the course of physical attraction in a longterm relationship). Third, consider the opposite of whatever your gut instinct is telling you to do, and systematically play through the consequences in your mind. And, finally, when your crossroads involves multiple decisions (as opposed to just one), weigh all your options simultaneously rather than separately. Research reveals that such “joint” decision making is more successful and less prone to bias than “separate” decision making.

Although these four recommendations are not panaceas, they have the potential to launch us in the direction of better decisions about the road to take in the face of life’s challenges and turning points. However, we should be vigilant that our thoughtful, systematic analysis doesn’t devolve into rumination or overthinking about our life choices; rumination is a dangerous habit that is likely to trigger a vicious cycle of increased worry, gloom, hopelessness, and “paralysis by analysis.” If our second and third thoughts are repeating themselves or going around in circles, then we are ruminating, not analyzing.

In sum, when we are facing an epiphany or a major life change, it’s natural to want to act quickly and instinctively. But there is great value to waiting and thinking, and not rushing to conclusions. Our first thought will only get us so far. Although it isn’t easy to identify an optimal course of action, we can begin by rejecting our first thoughts, and, instead, leaving ourselves open to multiple potential responses to life’s crisis points.

I can’t counsel each individual to follow a particular trajectory. Each of us must choose and fashion our own unique path. Depending on our personal histories, our social-support networks, and our personalities, goals, and resources, particular roads or detours may be more or less appropriate, beneficial, or rewarding. Researchers have shown that when people behave in ways that fit their personalities, interests, and values, they are more satisfied, more confident, more successful, more engaged in what they are doing, and feel “right” about it. Instead, the goal of The Myths of Happiness is to draw on the latest scientific research to expand readers’ perspectives about the crisis points they are confronting, dismantle the false beliefs about happiness driving their initial reactions, and introduce the tools that they can use to draw their own verdicts and develop new skills and habits of mind. Fortified with counterintuitive wisdom and instructive distance from their problems, their next crisis point will be met with a prepared mind.

Although our crisis points may initially feel disappointing or confusing or even tragic, they are opportunities to change our lives or, at the very least, to achieve a clearer vision. With new understanding, we will be better able to use major challenges to make major strides. The message of The Myths of Happiness is that, ultimately, we each can identify the steps to take to forge our way to a fulfilling life and help ourselves reach and exceed our happiness potentials.

Excerpted from THE MYTHS OF HAPPINESS by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Copyright (c) 2012 by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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