The Myths of Happiness
January 18, 2013
— book review
Are you happy? What would make you happier? Many of us have long been trying to figure this out, especially since a Gallup poll published in December on happiness levels in 148 countries ranked poverty-stricken Paraguay tied for first place with Panama, just ahead of war-damaged El Salvador and tsunami-walloped Thailand. Canada, with the best-educated population in the world, placed only 11th, the United States 35th and wealthy Singapore dead last.
With excellent timing, here comes The Myths of Happiness to help explain such paradoxes and to detail, as the subtitle says, What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t; What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. Author Sonja Lyubormirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and the author of the 2008 bestseller The How of Happiness, has made a career of studying well being in connection to marriage, divorce, work, wealth, illness and other major turning points of adulthood.
Drawing from hundreds of research studies from around the world, including some of her own, Lyubomirsky has produced a smart, lively read that interprets the science for lay readers and offers advice for building a more satisfying life.
Refreshingly, she busts some of our long-held misconceptions about happiness, such as avoiding adversity or achieving lofty goals. She says recent research shows people who have experienced some adversity are ultimately happier and less stressed than those who’ve experienced none at all. Accomplishing a series of goals — even winning the Nobel prize — offers only short-term thrills, often followed by increased expectations and letdown. She even assaults the American dream, saying homeowners report less happiness than renters.
Much of our happiness depends not on our circumstances, Lyubomirsky writes, but on our unrealistic expectations. It’s completely natural for even a good marriage to settle into long periods of ordinariness within a couple of years, but if we’re unprepared for that, we become dissatisfied, bored or restless.
We tend to overestimate how a particular positive event, such as marriage, a promotion or winning the lottery, will throw us over the moon, she says. Because of a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation, we quickly get used to every positive event — and that, Lyubomirsky writes, “is a formidable obstacle to our happiness.” As a colleague once told her, very few things in life are all they’re cracked up to be.
Depressing? Not at all. She describes how people with lower expectations derive more satisfaction from life. As one content husband explains, he had no expectations whatsoever of the first few years of marriage. “That way, when my wife did anything wonderful — or nice or even ordinary — I was happy.”
Lyubomirsky also explains why small daily annoyances like a broken dishwasher can cause us more misery than a major calamity like a bad diagnosis, why experiences bring more satisfaction than things and why spending money on others instead of ourselves brings us joy. She offers dozens of practical recommendations that we can start implementing immediately. For example, since small, frequent positive experiences create more long-lasting happiness than one intense experience, she suggests spreading our restaurant budget over several modest dinners instead of one big blowout.
She also highlights the importance of anticipation, citing research showing that if given the chance to kiss their favourite movie star in three hours or three days, most people would opt for the longer wait time to heighten the experience. On this theme, she recommends we watch our favourite TV show once a week, as opposed to viewing the entire season in a single weekend. And surprising research shows we enjoy the program even more when we have to sit through the commercials, since interrupting a positive experience renders it more enjoyable.
In rejecting materialism, Lyobomirsky even recommends borrowing books from the library instead of buying them, a bracingly honest suggestion that may make her publishers less happy than her readers.