Published on December 12th, 20130
The Myths of happiness - What really makes us happy?
“Almost everyone believes in what I call «the myths of happiness»”, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. The researcher has spent most of her career studying human happiness, publishing studies and two books on the subject.
In her latest book, The Myths of Happiness, Lyubomirsky comments on “happiness myths”, those beliefs about happiness shared by most people. For example, most people believe that certain accomplishments (marriage, children, jobs, wealth) will make us happy forever, and some adversity (health problems, lack of a partner, a low income) will make us unhappy forever. “This reductive understanding of happiness is reinforced culturally and continue to endure despite overwhelming evidence that our welfare is not working after such principles”, says Lyubomirsky.
One such myth is bliss ” I will be happy when i will ____________”. I’ll be happy when I get a salary raise, when I find my husband, when I have a baby, when I’m rich and so on. “These achievements will make us happy, but not so intensely and for not so long as we imagine it. Therefore, when these objectives will not make us so happy as we had expected, we feel that there is something wrong with us or that we are the only people who feel disappointed”, said the psychology professor.
Equally harmful is the opposite myth “I will not be happy if ____________ “, says Lyubomirsky. More recent research shows that people who have experienced difficulties in life (ie, more negative events) tend to be overall happier (and less stressed and traumatized) than those who did not suffer any adversity. A past where we had difficult moments strengthens us and makes us better at managing other difficulties. Moreover, researchers found that managing the difficulties of life helps us to define and anchor our identity, which boosts optimism about the future and facilitate more effective management of current sources of stress.
Teachers Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert have shown in a series of elegant experiments which is our main mistake: that we overestimate how much and how hard a negative event will affect us (such as redundancy) and how much and how intense we’ll enjoy a positive event (such as marriage required that the person says “yes”). This effect is perfectly summarized by the following popular saying: “Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it”. Whatever we focus on, it bulges in the heat of our attention until we assume its role in our life as a whole is greater than it is.
The Myths of happiness in relationships
If you are married for some time or you are simply a long-term relationship , you might get a feeling that you do not want to tell any close person how bored you are. This can turn a small thing into a more serious problem in which you can imagine you are braking-up.
Before taking a decision, Sonja Lyubomirsky recommends you to analyze “the myths of happiness” that underlies the instincts that make you consider this option. Most likely, the true happiness myth in this case is “I’ll be happy when I get married with the right person”. “Most likely you have devoted much time and energy to find an ideal partner and have made efforts to your marriage but despite this the relationship does not give you the satisfaction that you thought that you get”, says Lyubomirsky. The author has analyzed numerous studies that explain why the phenomenon occurs and the options that people can use in this situation.
The phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” and refers to the fact that people have a remarkable ability to adjust to most changes in life. The phenomenon is now widely studied in psychology and economics, the explanation that both satisfaction of victory and the agony of failure attenuates over time. Researchers found, however, that hedonic adaptation is more pronounced for positive experiences. Basically, people are naturally predisposed to believe any positive experiences they share. So when we move into a huge house, we buy a last generation car or even when we get married we have a happiness boost, but it takes a little enthusiasm. Soon we will see that our expectations will grow in turn, and those experiences that had made us happy will be considered as a natural state of things.
The best known study on hedonic adaptation in romantic relationships and shows that usually the people who get married are much happier, but this amplification takes about two years of happiness, then happiness level returns to that recorded before marriage. Researchers say that when we fall in love we get “passionate love”, but over time it turns into ” baby friendly ” (compassionate love). Passionate love is characterized by a state of intense longing, attraction and desire, while the love of friendship is composed rather of deep affection, connection and sympathy.
There are numerous reasons evolutionary, physiological and practical that make it impossible to have a very long passionate love. “If we continue to think obsessively at partners and have sex several times a day every day, we could be productive at work or to pay attention to children, friends or even our health”, said Lyubomirsky. Moreover, passionate love has several features in common with addiction and narcissism, and if it last forever the effects will certainly harmful.
Evolutionary psychologists say that both types of love are necessary for people to survive and reproduce. Passionate love encourages us to form connections and channel our energies in the formation of a new relationship, friendship and love seems to be essential to feed a stable long enough relationship to reproduce genes (ie, to have children) and ensure that they survive and prosper.
Experiments conducted by Lyubomirsky and other research in this area suggests that there are many secrets that allow overcoming or at least postpone hedonic adaptation in relationships. The first step is to recognize that this is a perfectly natural phenomenon present in all relationships. “I think that we fall in love with the idea of a romantic story that made us misunderstand the function, complexity and natural course of a marriage, causing us to be disappointed when it does not satisfy our constant desire for passion satisfaction, intimacy and stability”, says Lyubomirsky. Once you recognize the “myth of happiness” underlying discontent, we can understand the experiences we go through and act to slow down the process of adaptation.
What are the solutions?
In her research, Lyubomirsky has identified several elements that allow relationships to produce happiness in couple members even after long periods. One of these elements is appreciation. “One of the clues that shows that you’ve adapted to your partner is that you stopped appreciating him/her”, says Lyubomirsky. If we continue to make an effort to be grateful and to express our appreciation to the partner, we will prevent hedonic adaptation. Several studies support this claim, including research conducted in the laboratory of Professor Lyubomirsky. It showed that people still appreciate the positive changes in their lives are less prone to hedonic adaptation to that change.
Other experiments have shown that those who practice repeatedly expressing appreciation and gratitude, for example by writing a letter of thanks to the people who have been kind to them, tend to become happier and healthier. To the surprise of researchers, they continued to be happy even 6 months after the experiment. Thus, there is compelling evidence suggesting that the assessment of positive situations (such as marriage) can help to prevent hedonic adaptation.
The researchers also found that hedonic adjustment does not affect equally all the changes that occur in life. In studies with Ken Sheldon, Professor Lyubomirsky found that participants were much less likely to adjust to changes in their lives that required a variable, dynamic and relatively difficult involvement (such as learning a foreign language or making friends with a new person) than changes which were relatively static and unchangeable (such as moving into an apartment or getting a more desirable loan). Furthermore, the dynamic changes seemed to have a sustained impact on people’s happiness. Once you make a dynamic change study participants continued to be happy even at 6-12 weeks after the event. However, after a static change participants were already showing signs of emotional accommodation 6-12 weeks.
Variety is therefore necessary to prevent hedonic adaptation. In addition, studies have shown that it stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the same neurotransmitter that is activated by the positive emotions (and even by certain drugs). The researchers conducted a study that suggests that the variety can help couples avoid hedonic adaptation. Study participants were instructed to perform certain friendly actions every week for 10 weeks. Some were instructed to vary the acts and others were instructed to repeat the same act every time. Research has shown that people who have varied acts were generally happier (in other words, if you bring your partner breakfast in bed one day , we will feel great and if we will make it every day we perceive it as a chore).
In another famous experiment conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron and colleagues, researchers gave study participants - middle-class couples - a list of activities which both members were in agreement that they are ” nice” (such as creative cooking, visiting friends or watching a movie) or ” exciting” (such as skiing, dancing or going to the concert), but perform them rarely. Researchers instructed each couple to devote 90 minutes of one of these activities each week. After 10 weeks, researchers found that marital satisfaction was higher among couples who played “exciting” activities than those who played “nice” ones.
Another method identified by researchers is braking the routine. Studies have found that when an enjoyable experience is interrupted, it is perceived as even more enjoyable. At first glance, this may seem strange if we listen to our favorite album or a massage, the last thing we want it to be interrupted. However, researchers have found that people enjoy more massages when interrupted by a break of 20 minutes, appreciate more TV when you are interrupted by advertisements and appreciate more favorite songs when they are interrupted by a break of 20 seconds.
Lyubomirsky says that these three elements - assessment, variety and surprise - are solutions that prevent or slow the emergence of hedonic adaptation. Awareness that romantic relationship does not produce the same pleasure as its initial point should not be seen as a tragedy but as an invitation, according to the researcher. “The good news is that those who are willing to make an effort will get tangible benefits. Research shows that marital happiness peak appears after children move out on their own”, says Professor Lyubomirsky.
What is the researcher’s conclusion? “In short, once you recognize the importance that you have beliefs about what will make you happy and unhappy and how much influence they have these reactions to life’s challenges, you’ll be ready to decide how to behave in ways that promote happiness and development, appealing to reason rather than just rely on instinct. Destroying «the myths of happiness» and accept that there is no magic formula for happiness and no guarantee of unhappiness - that nothing in life is so gratifying or devastating as we believe it is. By assessing this truth we will not only free ourselves from the burden of happiness myths and broaden our horizons, but we have also the chance to make the right decisions”.