Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Science of Lasting Happiness

There is an interesting Scientific American article up this morning that looks at the science of happiness. Happiness research is all the rage of late, with Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology leading the charge (building, of course, on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who made the idea of "Flow" part of our vernacular).

The article proposes that 50% of our happiness is determined at birth, a kind of genetic set-point for happiness. It has also been determined through years of research that life circumstances only account for about 10% of our happiness. That leaves 40% of our happiness unaccounted for -- and the article proposes that this 40% comes down to "intentional activity."
So what is the remaining 40 percent? "Because nobody had put it together before, that's unexplained," Lyubomirsky says. But she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be "intentional activity," mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation's downward pull.

Lyubomirsky has been studying these activities in hopes of finding out whether and how people can stay above their set point. In theory, that is possible in much the same way regular diet and exercise can keep athletes' weight below their genetic set points. But before Lyubomirsky began, there was "a huge vacuum of research on how to increase happiness," she says. The lottery study in particular "made people shy away from interventions," explains eminent University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman, the father of positive psychology and a mentor to Lyubomirsky. When science had scrutinized happiness at all, it was mainly through correlational studies, which cannot tell what came first--the happiness or what it is linked to--let alone determine the cause and effect. Finding out that individuals with strong social ties are more satisfied with their lives than loners, for example, begs the question of whether friends make us happier or whether happy people are simply likelier to seek and attract friends.
And . . .
Investigators have no shortage of possible strategies to test, with happiness advice coming "from the Buddha to Tony Robbins," as Seligman puts it. So Lyubomirsky started with three promising strategies: kindness, gratitude and optimism--all of which past research had linked with happiness. Her aim is not merely to confirm the strategies' effectiveness but to gain insights into how happiness works. For example, conventional wisdom suggests keeping a daily gratitude journal. But one study revealed that those who had been assigned to do that ended up less happy than those who had to count their blessings only once a week. Lyubomirsky therefore confirmed her hunch that timing is important. So is variety, it turned out: a kindness intervention found that participants told to vary their good deeds ended up happier than those forced into a kindness rut. Lyubomirsky is also asking about mediators: Why, for example, does acting kind make you happier? "I'm a basic researcher, not an applied researcher, so I'm interested not so much in the strategies but in how they work and what goes on behind the scenes," she explains.

Initial results with the interventions have been promising, but sustaining them is tough. Months after a study is over, the people who have stopped the exercises show a drop in happiness. Like a drug or a diet, the exercises work only if you stick with them. Instilling habits is crucial. Another key: "fit," or how well the exercise matches the person. If sitting down to imagine your best possible self (an optimism exercise) feels contrived, you will be less likely to do it.

The biggest factor may be getting over the idea that happiness is fixed--and realizing that sustained effort can boost it. "A lot of people don't apply the notion of effort to their emotional lives," Lyubomirsky declares, "but the effort it takes is enormous."

I'm a huge fan of any approach that can increase happiness. The issue I have had with positive psychology in the past is its unwillingness to look into the shadow of emotional distress, seeking rather to accent the positive. But if positive psychology and happiness research can be used in a more integral approach (using the right tool for the job at hand, which is determined by each individual client) then I think they are valuable contributions.

I like the idea that we have to work at happiness the same way we have to work at staying fit (the athlete and trainer in me). Last year I undertook a gratitude experiment based on one of Martin Seligman's exercises (a daily inventory of just a few things for which I was grateful, anything from a partner to a good meal to a conversation with a friend).

I enjoyed the experiment. For the first month or so I noticed a huge shift in my happiness, which persisted (aside from rough times that summer and fall) to the present. Since beginning that experiment, I am a much happier person. I still do periodic gratitude inventories.

So I can see the value in cultivating happiness and not simply waiting for it to find us. This feels like a healthy approach to life.

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