Don’t Worry, Be Happy! Psychologist offers insights on the joy of living at UC San Diego’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging in La Jolla
By Linda Hutchison
Is it possible for us to become happier people — that is, to experience happiness more often and throughout our lives? Yes, it is, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., who recently spoke on “The Science and Practice of Happiness Across the Lifespan” at UC San Diego’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging in La Jolla.
A professor of psychology at UC Riverside, Lyubomirsky spent more than 20 years developing a science of happiness, investigating how and why people are happy, and how they can become even happier. Her research has been awarded several prizes and grants and has been featured in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and television shows around the world.
In addition to her research, teaching and lecturing, Lyubomirsky is the author of two bestselling books on the subject: “The How of Happiness” and “The Myths of Happiness.”
How does she define happiness? “It has two components,” she said. “The emotional component means we experience more positive emotions, such as joy, curiosity, appreciation and we want to increase the frequency. The cognitive component means we are aware that life is good, we are satisfied with our progress toward goals, for example, and in other ways.” The two components are intertwined.
Americans are happiness oriented, she points out. After all, “the pursuit of happiness” is included as an unalienable right in our Declaration of Independence, right up there with life and liberty.
Lyubomirsky readily admits that no one can be happy all the time and that there is no magic formula. We have to work at it and realize that what we think will make us happy doesn’t always — or not for long.
Mind the Matter
One of her central themes is the importance of having a prepared mind — a mind ready to make reason-based, healthier decisions, to think instead of acting on gut-based reactions. She admits that these initial reactions are often more compelling, such as “Take this job and shove it!” but rational second and third thoughts are more productive. When we think something through more carefully, we leave ourselves open to more ideas and opportunities.
Another finding of her research is that while certain events can make us very happy — a new marriage, job, home or promotion, for example — our happiness doesn’t usually last. That’s because, as humans, we quickly adapt to circumstances. Lyubomirsky refers to this as hedonic adaption, and also as creeping normalcy, insidious habituation, taking things for granted and boredom. When this sets in, we feel something must be wrong with us and that we are not happy. But there are tools we can use to head off or minimize this feeling, such as enjoying nature, introducing variety and surprises into our lives, meditating, exercising, eating well, writing and reflecting (without falling into ruminating), practicing gratitude and kindness and pursuing meaningful relationships and goals.
Lyubomirsky refrains from suggesting any one-size-fits-all formula for increasing happiness, but says that we can use our prepared minds and tools throughout our lives and view crisis or turning points as opportunities for growth. According to her research, approximately 40 percent of how we feel is within our control, with approximately 50 percent genetically determined and 10 percent influenced by circumstances.
Although older people may face some different challenges (health problems,
loss of friends and family, feelings of lost opportunities), they also have many advantages, according to Lyubomirsky.
“Older people have more perspective, are emotionally wiser, know what makes them happy and avoid situations and people that don’t,” she said. “They know they have less time, so they use it more wisely and effectively, are less likely to ruminate. They know they will get through the day.”
If older people can learn anything from younger ones, it would be to take more risks, she added. Instead of sticking with the comfortable, have lunch with someone new or try a new activity. “Younger people are risk takers, they want new experiences and opportunities. Neither approach is right or wrong, both have advantages.”
Lyubomirsky even thinks those who have been chronically unhappy can learn to start an upward spiral with such simple steps as helping others. “Acts of kindness can help people feel really good, can snowball, attract new friends,” she said.
Lyubomirsky says her own greatest sources of happiness are her family (she is married with four children, ages 10 months to 14 years) and her work. She first noticed a difference in happiness levels at the age of 9. Newly arrived in Boston from Russia, Lyubomirsky was struck by how much happier Americans appeared strolling down the street, smiling and saying hello, than Russians. (Today, she adds, younger Russians are happier.)
Her interest in studying happiness sparked on her first day of graduate school. While walking around the Stanford campus with her new bachelor’s degree from Harvard and her graduate advisor, they began discussing what makes people happy, even though his area of expertise was conflict and negotiation. This conversation led to their first research studies.
In the future, she would like to conduct more long-term studies that follow people for many years, as well as analyze how positive actions work, how to alleviate depression, the role of genetic make-up and how to measure behavior more objectively beyond self-reporting.
As part of the UCSD School of Medicine, the Organized Research Unit was founded in 1983 and renamed the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging in 1992 to promote education and research in geriatrics and gerontology.
The Institute presents free public lectures promoting physical and mental wellbeing. La Jolla philanthropist Suzanne Angelucci endowed the current series as a memorial to her father, Frank Benedikt Roehr.
Want to Know More?
■ Sonja Lyubomirsky: themythsofhappiness.org
■ UCSD School of Medicine Stein Institute for Research on Aging: aging.ucsd.edu
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