Wrong, says Ed Diener, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the International Positive Psychology Association. "Happiness is not a set of desirable life circumstances. It's a way of traveling." Diener's new book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, written with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, a life coach, offers guidance for those interested in taking a road trip.
As the Dieners synthesize the latest research—something Ed has steeped himself in as former editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies—they challenge the conventional party line on well-being: Money does matter, they conclude; religion, not necessarily. And marriage is hardly the joy girder it's been cracked up to be.
Because we're not always so good at forecasting what will make us happy (another finding), O asked the Dieners to help navigate a few big issues—about family, career, marriage, and weight—that affect life satisfaction. "We don't have a cookie-cutter approach," Ed explains. "So with each question, we suggest things you might think about."
Q: I'm passionate about my job, but I'm shortchanging my family and friends by working too hard. Should I quit? Or will I regret that choice?
Robert: People often mistakenly believe they're in an either-or situation. The conflict itself creates distress and gives you very few solutions to choose from. The truth is, you don't need to do something as extreme as quitting your job: You can make small changes—blocking out part of a Saturday afternoon for friends or committing to getting home two hours before the kids' bedtime. Just taking those steps gives you psychological peace of mind, with which you can start planning bigger strategies. You might end up deciding to leave your job, or you and your boss could work out a schedule of 10-hour days but only four days a week. Most likely, there are other solutions that, in the moment, you're not seeing.
Q: I have a good job, but I want to work for a cause where I can make a difference. Then again, I worry about giving up my high salary, which supports my family.
Robert: Rather than asking, "Should I quit being an advertising executive and start working in a soup kitchen?"—which is pretty dramatic—I would encourage you to take another look at your current job and think of how you can make a difference there. Maybe it's by securing accounts that will help the world or creating change from the inside. I met a man who helps Coca-Cola keep plastic bottles out of landfills. And he said to me, "Working at this corporation, I can do more for the environment than all my friends put together."
Q: My husband and I get along well. But I was happier before I got married. Is that a reason to consider leaving my marriage?
Ed: One conversation to have with yourself is about expectations. Even in the best marriages, the other person shouldn't be expected to give you happiness; you can only find that within yourself. In addition, people often have unrealistic ideas about love. Unlike the honeymoon, a long-term marriage is more like being with a friend. It's not always exciting. The really romantic feelings come up only occasionally. Some people think the relationship should always be a 10, but even in a good marriage, most of us are an 8.
Robert: To get some context, seek out 10 people with the best marriages you know and talk to at least three who have been through bloody divorces. Then, before you go straight to Divorce him or don't divorce him?, revise your thinking. A common mistake is to say, "I used to be happy, then I got married, now I'm unhappy," and conclude, "Oh, this marriage is really lame." You may not realize that when you met your husband, you were right out of college, you had lots of friends and no responsibility. And now you happen to have kids and a job and a house payment. If you get divorced, you're not going to be playing Frisbee on the quad again. If you can figure out what you're missing in your life—let's say a girls' night out every week—there's a good chance you can institute it and be happier.
Q: I'm miserable being fat, but I hate exercising and eating is my biggest pleasure. How can I resolve this?
Ed: Your health is so important to your overall life satisfaction; even if you hate exercise, try to do some, whether you lose weight or not. I don't enjoy working out, but I found that if I listen to books on tape while exercising and stop each session before I finish the chapter, I'll want to exercise the next day. Health in general can increase feelings of well-being. And happier people are known to be healthier.