Choice matters. Although there are fixed aspects to how happy you are, such as the biological set point, making the right choices still accounts for between 40 to 50 percent of how happy you are. The best choices are long-term rather than short-term. Buying a new car or a mink coat gives a spurt of happiness, but it doesn't last. Planning a long vacation or your retirement, on the other hand, brings more lasting enjoyment, because you get the pleasure of anticipating future happiness and then the pleasure of bringing your cherished plans to fruition.
Getting outside yourself is a good way to be happy. People who devote some time to service and helping others report that it makes them quite happy. Another fruitful path comes from developing loving, healthy relationships. Good marriages deepen in their rewards as the years pass. By comparison, spending money on yourself or being self-centered in your activities doesn't reliably create happiness. Charity isn't best when it begins at home, it would seem.
These new findings have been productive, yet I can't help feeling that the new field of happiness research is actually a guide to unhappiness. Already we have clues to why. In his best-seller, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert emphasizes two things that are undeniably true: People are bad predictors of what will make them happy; and constant happiness is a fantasy, whereas in reality happiness is occasional, temporary and all but random.
This is a very unhappy picture. In place of a "secret to happiness" or—at a deeper level—a "path to happiness," as promised by every religion, the new view dispels all ideals. Just as the universe is random in modern physics, positive psychology (an ironic name) wants us to believe that happiness is random. Not everyone can live with this conclusion, naturally. There are programs being offered on how to recover from setbacks and improve your state of happiness. Launched with considerable optimism, these programs have had mixed results, to say the least. Long-held habits are stubborn; misery keeps feeding on itself.
Even the advice to be of service and develop loving, healthy relationships feels dubious to me. Gilbert placed great emphasis on these two points in his PBS series, This Emotional Life. But is this advice helpful? It sounds good until you realize that you probably have to be happy to begin with in order to develop healthy, loving relationships—not many miserable people are good at this. And being of service generally implies that you have something to give, which again isn't true of most miserable people, who feel barely able to handle their own lives.
I'd suggest there is a path to happiness, that we are not puppets of randomness, and that it's possible to be happy all the time. These enticing prospects will be unfolded in next week's article.
Deepak Chopra is the author of more than 50 books on health, success, relationships and spirituality, including his current best-seller, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, and The Ultimate Happiness Prescription, which are available now. You can listen to his show on Saturdays every week on SiriusXM Channels 102 and 155.
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