I have read my share of research on happiness, of course, but I can say that the book by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky was still able to surprise me in some ways. The research that she selected to include is quite interesting, although often intuitive. It definitely sparkled my further curiosity and thirst to know more.
The book attempts to answer an important question that has “bothered” humanity for a long time—namely: Why can’t we ever be completely happy? And why do certain things, that we believe will make us happy (a new job, more money, a soul-mate), after we obtain them, don’t give us the satisfaction we expected?
While other ones (such as losing one’s job, indebtedness, poor health) that we perceive as great misfortunes, don’t really make us forever unhappy as we anticipated. In other words, the author’s goal is to unveil the truths and fictions behind the myths of happiness.
The book is quite well written and structured to address beliefs such as: “I can only be happy when I am married to the right person/ I have kids/ I have a good job/ I am rich/ I am healthy.” It is focused on few main ideas. First, people tend to exaggerate the effects of negative events and therefore we often treat certain outcomes as the “end of the world.” Which, of course, is a very limited viewpoint. Second, the reason happiness is short-lived is because of a psychological phenomenon, called “hedonic adaptation.” What this means is that we get quickly used to the positivity in our lives which ultimately raises the bar for the next “happy” experience. As a result, we often feel disappointed and dissatisfied even if something nice happens to us—simply because this particular event couldn’t bring us the same “high” as the previous one. Another major idea of the book is the notion that we frequently focus exclusively on the outcome and become so obsessed with reaching our goals, that we miss the life that passes us by. In other words, we have to learn to recognize that sometimes the journey is worth more than the destination.
One of the most important and complex connections that the author explores is between work/ money and happiness. As previously mentioned, we tend to adapt to new jobs, to higher salaries and therefore, our satisfaction gradually start decreasing shortly (about a year later) after we get that promotion or find a better job. We simply go back to our original levels of contentment. There are several suggested solutions that the book offers to us to overcome this hurdle to our happiness. One is the familiar advice of “live every day as it is our last.” According to research, when people believe they see things for a last time, they will then see then as though it is the first time. Using this approach is believed to increase our job satisfaction and motivation. In addition, we should also stop comparing ourselves to others—not ignoring their accomplishments but teaching ourselves to not be torn by jealousy and over-competitiveness. Finally, striving for, rather than achieving our goals at all costs, is what gives us the greatest pleasure.
Relationships are another big topic in the book. The link to happiness is more obvious and easy to comprehend. Because of the hedonic adaptation, the boost in our bliss from marrying our soul-mates lasts about two years, after which time we revert back to our original levels of happiness. Multiple studies support this notion. According to the author, the “death” of passion is a perfectly normal and even a good thing. When relationships turn into stable and committed marriages, then people can focus on the things that they enjoy doing, but instead of being alone, they now have someone to share their experiences with. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we need to simply let all passion and attraction die. Much has been written in recent years (just open any magazine) about how to maintain the fire in our relationshisp. Things, such as appreciating the other person and what we have, as avoiding the monotony of doing the same things over and over, as giving each other small surprise gestures, are still highly recommended. In other words, we can be happy in our relationships and can prolong passion and even continue to have great sex, but it requires work from both partners. We need to respect the other person and care about their feelings—because, after all, our marital happiness is dependent on our spouse as much as on ourselves.
An interesting idea in the book, further supported by research, is that happiness sometimes entails not merely feeling good, but simply not feeling bad. In other words, we may feel greater satisfaction by “diminishing negative experiences” (such as decreasing our debt) than by creating positive experiences (buying a new TV). Simply put, sometimes “pain is more potent than pleasure.” People often get used to positive experiences faster than getting over negative ones. This is why with every major acquisition we make that will put us in great debt, the pleasure of ownership is overcast by the worry of indebtedness. Therefore, the path to happiness is not to buy more things we can’t afford, but to try and reduce the balances we owe before diving into new purchases.
Yet another intuitive advice for happiness is, not surprisingly, to try and spend our money on experiences vs. things. Possessions may change over time, get old and out of fashion, we get used to them. Experiences, in contrast, create longer-lasting feelings of glee and memories. They help us socialize and are less likely to make us want to compare them against those of others. Experiences never grow old and we are generally more likely to revisit our past experiences than our purchases. In a nutshell, materialists are shown to have less satisfaction with their lives, to have emptier relationships and to be less liked.
Finally, the author concludes that while there is no magic formula for finding and sustaining happiness, we have to always try to look at life events as realistically as possible. In the long-run, nothing is really that “misery-inducing” or “joy-producing” as we believe them to be. A flare for exaggeration only fuels further the our “false feelings of dissatisfaction.” We should not focus our attention on just one thing and obsess about it—instead, we have to choose attainable and flexible goals to pursue. Variety in life is also very important—we need to introduce new things in our routines and with our partners. Because often, happiness does lie in the paths less traveled.
Overall, the book is an interesting read—I would recommend it to those who are in search of their own bliss (which is pretty much every person on earth). It does contain lots of research and evidence of how to approach a healthier and happier life. I found the author’s observations on the myths of happiness quite intriguing and was genuinely surprised by the outcome of some studies. And while I can’t say that I felt the “wow factor” while reading the book—simply because most of the truths revealed are genuinely defined as “common knowledge,” and often fundamentally logical—there were things that I did learn—about the whys and hows of becoming satisfied with what I have in my life at this very moment.
Undoubtedly too, there is plenty of good advice in the book for everyone who is in pursuit of the ever-elusive state of complete and pure happiness.