Being happy, said Collette, is one way of being wise. And yet, in the hundred years since Freud helped erase the prospect of happiness from our Western horizon—famously declaring that the most we could hope for was the transformation of hysterical misery into common unhappiness—many of us have been brainwashed into concluding that happiness is somehow beyond our reach, a naive conjecture, a windmill to tilt toward but truly an impossible dream.
It turns out that Freud was wrong. Recent breakthroughs in psychology, neurology, and chemistry—supported by Eastern practices such as meditation—have revealed that happiness is attainable. No longer psychology's doomed neurotics, we know now that the brain can change. Scientists call this discovery neuroplasticity, a revolutionary idea that has helped to promote—along with the positive psychology movement—a burgeoning science of happiness.
Just a decade ago, Daniel Goleman, PhD, writes in Destructive Emotions, when "the dogma in neuroscience was that the brain...was unchanged by life experiences," scientific research focused mainly on negative emotional states. The recent shift in emphasis from "what goes wrong with us...to what goes right"—Goleman's words—has brought happiness to the cultural table at last. We want to know how happiness works. We also want to know how it eludes us.
Why does happiness seem so out of reach sometimes, like grabbing at water, futile, absurd? Given the inalienable, constitutional right to pursue our own happiness, we wonder where we're supposed to pursue it, and what, precisely, we have a right to. When does my happiness become your pain? Is happiness a fate or a choice, and what makes us happy, if we're honest? Finally, in a world with so much upheaval, uncertainty, struggle, and injustice, how can we be deeply happy? What definition of happiness is large enough to contain all that?
"It's possible, even in the midst of hardship, to experience simple pleasures"
The Set Point of Happiness
Subjective well-being (SWB) is the nickname experts in this field give to happiness. Since your hell may be my paradise, subjectivity is the single greatest variable in the happiness equation. Homeless people in Calcutta have been found to be less unhappy than those in California (because they have a stronger sense of community), reports Ed Diener, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while the Amish appear to be rarely bored, though churning butter might not be everybody's idea of a party.
Each of us, it seems, is born with a happiness "set point," a genetic level—from giddy to grumpy—around which SWB tends to settle, regardless of what happens to us. A now famous study of identical twins reared in different environments suggests that the set point determines about 50 percent of our disposition to happiness.
"Happiness is genetically influenced but not genetically fixed," says University of Minnesota professor emeritus of psychology David Lykken, PhD. "The brain's structure can be modified through practice," Lykken says. "If you really want to be happier than your grandparents provided for in your genes, you have to learn the kinds of things you can do, day by day, to bounce your set point up and avoid the things that bounce it down."
There are as many SWB-raising tools as there are people in need of a lift. Using a number of tools at once appears to be most effective, according to Diener, who is coeditor of the Journal of Happiness Studies. Such tools can range from commonsensical—getting sufficient sleep and exercise, nurturing close relationships, maintaining an optimistic outlook, using your best skills in work and play—to attitude shifts and inner work that might not spring immediately to mind, says David Myers, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. He also recommends keeping a gratitude journal, taking control of your own time, even "acting happy" to raise SWB (since there seems to be a direct link between facial expression and emotion). While such tools seem almost too simple to be true, they are extraordinarily effective, over time, in retraining the mind toward well-being.
In writing about SWB, Diener suggests that happy people rely on familiar shortcuts rather than overthink every little situation. (For example, someone who feels down in rainy weather but gets an emotional boost from the movies would automatically beat her way to the nearest multiplex the next time there's a big storm.) On average, according to a survey out of the National Opinion Research Center, the more friends you have, the happier you are. The practice of forgiveness, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, says, is "a trait strongly linked to happiness." A daily moment of forgiveness, then, might be one way to raise your SWB.
Perhaps the most exciting news is that science has compelling evidence that mental practices like meditation promote SWB. At the University of Wisconsin, professor of psychology and psychiatry Richard Davidson found in his research that high levels of activity at the left frontal area of the cerebral cortex coincided with feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy, and alertness; activity on the right frontal area corresponded to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worry. Meditation appears to be one way of redistributing the balance, sparking more left-brain activity and thus positive emotion.
It's hard to find someone in this country who has devoted more time to exploring this relationship between the mind and happiness than Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2005). "We have a sort of autoimmune disease—chronic stress and discontent—caused by not looking deeply enough into this question of genuine happiness," says Kabat-Zinn, who is a coauthor on one of Richard Davidson's studies.
In that study, one group met for a two- to-three-hour mindfulness meditation class each week for eight weeks—plus a one-day retreat—in addition to being asked to practice 45 minutes a day. Not only did subjects report significantly lowered anxiety levels and negative emotions immediately afterward, but four months later they continued to show a distinctive prefrontal shift in brain activity associated with positive emotions. They also had significantly higher levels of antibodies in response to a flu shot, compared to the control group.
"It's possible, even in the midst of hardship, to experience simple pleasures," Kabat-Zinn says. "To know delight, what's right and beautiful with the world. With mental balance, we develop a keel-like ballast that helps us to remain stable even under extreme conditions."
"We're better off aiming for happiness moment to moment than trying to engineer happiness through long-term planning"
I Got What I Wanted. Still Not Happy.
Regardless of which particular tools we choose to help lift our own set point, one thing appears to be certain: We're better off aiming for happiness moment to moment than trying to engineer happiness through long-term planning. This is because—as science now shows us—human beings are fairly hopeless at predicting what will make us happy or how long that happiness will last.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, PhD, spends his days exploring the riddle of human self-delusion. He's a pioneer in the field known as affective forecasting, in which researchers measure the distressing gap between what we believe will make us happy and how wrong we tend to be. "We're such strangers to ourselves," he tells me, "nowhere more than in our pursuit of the holy grail of happiness. We usually overestimate how things will affect us and rarely underestimate them." This discrepancy—known as the impact bias—causes a great deal of "miswanting." For example, we scrimp and save for the bigger house, only to find ourselves then more isolated from our neighbors or too exhausted from overwork to enjoy the new swimming pool.
What's more, the results of our choices are not nearly as life-changing as we think they'll be. In a 1978 study of SWB among lottery winners and paraplegics, both groups adjusted to their respective circumstances with surprising results: The lottery winners settled back to levels of happiness that did not differ significantly from a control group. The paraplegics, while less happy, were not as unhappy as was expected. In fact, one study revealed that major events, happy or not, lose their impact on happiness levels in less than three months. If we understood how quickly this normalizing process worked, we might invest our hopes in things that could actually help us feel better.
Money and Happiness: We Do the Math
Experts agree that a lifetime spent chasing the almighty dollar rarely raises SWB. In fact, Myers, who has reviewed many studies on the correlation between income and personal happiness, cites research by Ronald Inglehart, PhD, who found that once middle-class comforts are in place, the link between the two "is surprisingly weak (indeed, virtually negligible)." Gilbert agrees: "The first 40 grand makes a dramatic difference, but after basic needs are met, the next 10 million does almost nothing." (I tell him that I'll be the judge of that.) "The jury's been in for a while," says R. Adam Engle, whose Mind and Life Institute sponsored the recent conference between the Dalai Lama and a group of top scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the subject of Buddhism and its relation to how the mind works. "We can't hang on to the idea that if we get more stuff we'll be happier."
"Working beyond our own limits...not leaving enough for ourselves on the side, we often compromise our own happiness"
What Color Is Your Happiness?
Just as Italians have eight words for for love, we need more colors for happiness. The simple-minded version will not do; life is too complex, we know too much, there's too much pain to be satisfied with a naive idea of what it means to be happy—and to be human. To accommodate a larger vision, Martin Seligman, PhD, the godfather of the positive psychology movement, has created a three-zone model of happiness. Beyond the first tier, what he calls the Hollywood view of happiness ("getting as much positive emotion as possible"), a second kind of happiness arises from discovering our "signature strengths," which range (in Seligman's list of 24) from honesty, kindness, and forgiveness to ingenuity and love of learning.
Seligman's third zone consists of using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself.
So it seems that transcending our own needs, now and then, and learning to sacrifice what we want for the greater good could boost our happiness to another level.
But volunteering each and every week at your local soup kitchen might not leave you blissed-out if you haven't taken care of your personal issues. (We've all known grim-faced do-gooders who tried to save the world while ignoring their own unhappy selves.) Before attempting to leapfrog our problems, we need to look at the nuts and bolts of everyday life—beginning with the question of work.
In his recent book, The Art of Happiness at Work, coauthored with the Dalai Lama, psychiatrist Howard Cutler, MD, reports three basic approaches to work, whatever the profession. "People tend to see work as a job, a career, or a calling," he tells me from his Phoenix office. In the job approach, work is seen as a means to an end (money), offering no other reward. Career-minded folk have a deeper personal investment in their profession, marking achievements not only through monetary gain but through advancement within their chosen field. Finally, those who view their work as a calling show passionate commitment to "work for its own sake," focusing as much on fulfillment—human relationships, how what they do affects the world—as on monetary gain.
In 1997 Amy Wrzesniewski, PhD, who is now an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at New York University's Stern School of Business, coauthored an important study of people in various occupations, from so-called menial to high-level professional. The reported levels of SWB were consistent with the approach each individual took toward his or her work. Those subjects who felt it was a calling had "significantly higher" SWB than those who saw it as a job or a career.
This would seem, at first glance, to surgically remove our bitching rights about how we earn a living. Work—whether inside or outside the home—can be a place to express ourselves, a place to practice being happy, or the seventh circle of hell. We can learn to "craft" our jobs into a calling, Wrzesniewski says, by becoming more active participants in the design of our work lives. In a study involving a group of hospital maintenance workers, for instance, she and her colleagues found overwhelming evidence of a disparity among people doing the same job. Those who deemed themselves unskilled and did what was asked of them—and no more—were far less happy (and effective) than those who reinvented the job for themselves, went beyond the call of duty, believing that what they were doing— however outwardly mundane—mattered nevertheless.
Naturally, some days a job is just a job and professional discrepancies (income, internecine politics, and so on) cannot be denied, but it does appear that plowing our own field well, instead of comparing ours to the next guy's, makes us happier. "Just look at the Ten Commandments," urges Michael Eigen, a New York psychoanalyst. "To covet is the gateway to pain."
Indeed, there is an undeniable link between SWB and how we perceive ourselves in relation to the norm. Feeling that we fall short, possess less than people around us, invites a sense of discontent. With workaholism now at a peak, unfortunately, this competitive spirit frequently spirals out of control. Professor Lord Richard Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, calls such "fruitless work"—more than is necessary to do the job—a source of "social pollution." It's a contagion of envy and striving that keeps us consuming without feeling better. "We find, as nations grow wealthier, that once we're above abject poverty, wealth makes little difference to citizens' well-being," he tells me from a phone booth in the House of Lords. "When everyone is striving, it's like a football game where everyone stands up: You still have the same view only now you're less comfortable because you're standing." With upward mobility comes other unfortunate side effects as well, depriving families of time together and fragmenting communities.
In his lectures, Layard points to evidence that rates of clinical depression, alcoholism, and crime have all increased in the post–World War II era despite periods of economic growth. Working beyond our own limits, as Layard suggests, not leaving enough for ourselves on the side, we often compromise our own happiness as well as the greater good. "The last two decades have seen a serious assault on the communitarian ethic," says Layard. "There is such a thing as objective happiness, but it must be shared." If we stop focusing on personal gain as the only path to happiness, then perhaps we can turn outward. "I badly want to reinstate the Enlightenment belief that the moral act is always the one that produces the greatest overall happiness."
"In the end, happiness is a choice"
So That's What Friends Are For
A single consistent factor in many studies of SWB is the critical necessity for close connection, physical touch, the comfort of friendship, the deeper embrace of love. "Friends are good, but family's better," says University of Southern California professor of economics Richard Easterlin, PhD. In a National Opinion Research Center survey of 23,000 Americans over the past two decades, 41 percent of those who were married described themselves as "very happy," while only 22 percent of those never married, divorced, separated, or widowed could say the same thing, meaning that the SWB levels of married people are nearly double the levels of those who aren't. This raises an interesting question. Are married people happier because they're married—or were they happier in the first place? In other words, are people with higher SWB more likely to find a partner? Researchers are attempting to answer this.
It is intriguing to note that a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that happy individuals appear more likely to get and stay married, which may help explain why SWB has been found to be higher among married people.
Contrary to pessimistic predictions of marriage starting out with a honeymoon bang, then declining in terms of intimacy (and SWB), psychologist David Myers cites in his research a 1995 study that reveals it's the benefits of marriage that help make married people happier. "Intimacy, commitment, and support do, for most people, pay emotional dividends," he reports, offering spouses—along with additional stresses—new roles and rewards.
Dual careers, it would seem, pose special challenges. But couples have new opportunities to craft their marriages just as they can shift their jobs into a calling. If you and your partner find more joy doing charity work than pigging out at Club Med (or the reverse), by all means follow your unique desires; find the space to pursue the things that will keep you as focused on the relationship as on the phone bill or car pool.
In the end, happiness is a choice—the frame through which we choose to see. The larger the frame, the more vivid the picture. The more we remember that life is a gift—that everything changes, we're not in control—the stronger our sense of well-being becomes. Colette had disasters in her life but was also one of the most joyful people ever to walk the streets of Paris. Happiness can withstand all that—all it takes is wisdom.
Your Happiness Plan