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Why Is Happiness So Unhappy?

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Over the past several years the public has become aware of a new field called "positive psychology," which attempts to understand such basic things as happiness. Some surprising findings have emerged, along with a slew of books and PBS specials. Does this mean that we are getting closer to knowing what makes us happy? Is science about to solve a dilemma that has baffled the greatest minds since Plato?

Before answering this vital question, here are some of those surprising findings:

-- People aren't very good at predicting what will make them happy. Such things as winning the lottery, having children, and getting a pay raise seem desirable to almost everyone, but they don't bring increased happiness when they occur. New mothers report that taking care of small children isn't as satisfying as taking a nap; it ranks just above washing the dishes.

-- More money doesn't equal greater happiness. Being poor creates worry and anxiety, no one denies that. But after a certain point, once you have enough money to feel comfortable, extra riches don't increase happiness. "Money can't buy happiness" has some wisdom to it, as long as you've taken care of basic needs.

-- A single happy event soon fades and can even lead to less happiness in the long run. Lottery winners look upon their good fortune as a happy event, but consistently they are less happy with everyday pleasures than people who didn't win the lottery. In fact, lottery winners enjoy everyday life less than victims of accidents who became wheelchair bound.

-- Bad luck makes you more optimistic about the future than good luck. Wheelchair victims think their future will be brighter compared to lottery winners, who tend to be more gloomy about their future. It's easier to come up from a low than to fall from a high.

-- There is a biological "set point" for happiness that is hard to change. If you are generally cheerful, misfortune will disturb your happiness, but only for a while. Within six months to a year, you will return to your set point so far as mood goes. The same is true for generally unhappy people. A sudden stroke of good luck will lift their mood, but within six months to a year they will return to their emotional set point. No one knows, however, where the set point originates -- the usual guess is the brain, dictated by genes. It's only a guess, however.

-- Choice matters. Although there are fixed aspects to how happy you are, such as the biological set point, making the right choices still accounts for between 40% to 50% of how happy you are. The best choices are long term rather than short term. Buying a new car or a mink coat gives a spurt of happiness, but it doesn't last. Planning a long vacation or your retirement, on the other hand, brings more lasting enjoyment, because you get the pleasure of anticipating future happiness and then the pleasure of bringing your cherished plans to fruition.

-- Getting outside yourself is a good way to be happy. People who devote some time to service and helping others report that it makes them quite happy. Another fruitful path comes from developing loving, healthy relationships. Good marriages deepen in their rewards as the years pass. By comparison, spending money on yourself or being self-centered in your activities doesn't reliably create happiness. Charity isn't best when it begins at home, it would seem.
These new findings have been productive, yet I can't help feeling that the new field of happiness research is actually a guide to unhappiness. Already we have clues to why. In his bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert emphasizes two things that are undeniably true: people are bad predictors of what will make them happy, and constant happiness is a fantasy, whereas in reality happiness is occasional, temporary, and all but random.

This is a very unhappy picture. In place of a "secret to happiness" or, at a deeper level a "path to happiness," as promised by every religion, the new view dispels all ideals. Just as the universe is random in modern physics, positive psychology (an ironic name) wants us to believe that happiness is random. Not everyone can live with this conclusion, naturally. There are programs being offered in how to recover from setbacks and improve your state of happiness. Launched with considerable optimism, these programs have had mixed results, to say the least. Long-held habits are stubborn; misery keeps feeding on itself.

Even the advice to be of service and develop loving, healthy relationships feels dubious to me. Gilbert placed great emphases on these two points in his PBS series, This Emotional Life. But is this advice helpful? It sounds good until you realize that you probably have to be happy to begin with in order to develop healthy, loving relationships -- not many miserable people are good at this. And being of service generally implies that you have something to give, which again isn't true of most miserable people, who feel barely able to handle their own lives.
I'd suggest that there is a path to happiness, that we are not puppets of randomness, and that it's possible to be happy all the time. These enticing prospects will be unfolded in the next post.

(To be cont.)

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Deepak Chopra on Intent.com
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