Over the past several years, the public has become aware of a new field called "positive psychology," which attempts to understand such basic things as happiness. Some surprising findings have emerged, along with a slew of books and PBS specials. Does this mean that we are getting closer to knowing what makes us happy? Is science about to solve a dilemma that has baffled the greatest minds since Plato?
Before answering this vital question, here are some of those surprising findings:
People aren't very good at predicting what will make them happy. Such things as winning the lottery, having children and getting a pay raise seem desirable to almost everyone, but they don't bring increased happiness when they occur. New mothers report that taking care of small children isn't as satisfying as taking a nap; it ranks just above washing the dishes.
More money doesn't equal greater happiness. Being poor creates worry and anxiety—no one denies that. But after a certain point, once you have enough money to feel comfortable, extra riches don't increase happiness. "Money can't buy happiness" has some wisdom to it, as long as you've taken care of basic needs.
A single happy event soon fades and can even lead to less happiness in the long run. Lottery winners look upon their good fortune as a happy event, but consistently they are less happy with everyday pleasures than people who didn't win the lottery. In fact, lottery winners enjoy everyday life less than victims of accidents who became wheelchair-bound.
Bad luck makes you more optimistic about the future than good luck. People in wheelchairs think their future will be brighter, compared to lottery winners, who tend to be more gloomy about their future. It's easier to come up from a low than to fall from a high.
There is a biological "set point" for happiness that is hard to change. If you are generally cheerful, misfortune will disturb your happiness, but only for a while. Within six months to a year, you will return to your set point, as far as mood goes. The same is true for generally unhappy people. A sudden stroke of good luck will lift their mood, but within six months to a year they will return to their emotional set point. No one knows, however, where the set point originates—the usual guess is the brain, dictated by genes. That's only a guess, however.
Go outside yourself to find happiness