According to popular belief, you will be happy when ... (insert career/marriage expectation here). And if that doesn't do the job, you'll absolutely be ecstatic when you ... (have kids, buy a home). Regardless, there's no doubt if ... (insert bad thing -- divorce, a health crisis) happens instead, you will be flat-out miserable.
That's pretty standard internal chatter for a lot of us, parroting culturally dictated, preconceived notions about the keys to personal paradise. But are we really just victims of circumstance?
Maybe not. New research in the growing field of positive psychology -- empirical studies of positive experiences and relationships -- suggests that our levels of underlying joy depend more on how we react to situations, be they good or bad, than on the situations themselves.
"These things -- marriage, family, wealth -- do make people happy, but the effect is often not as long-lasting as people expect. And when the 'thrill' wears off and life gets back to everyday experiences, we think there's something wrong," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at UC Riverside and author of the new book "The Myths of Happiness." She earned her doctorate in social/personality psychology from Stanford University, and her happiness research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health.
In her book, Lyubomirsky argues that myths about what will make us forever happy/unhappy lead to a restricted black-and-white view of life, and prevent us from recognizing the upside of any negative life turn -- perhaps a layoff spurs someone to try a new, more interesting career, or a health problem brings a deeper appreciation of family.
"While some of these major challenges will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions," she said. "It sounds cliché, but happiness to a large extent resides inside us, and once we know that, we can take advantage of it."
Glass half full
Steven Berk, 59, a music teacher in Alameda, considers himself a pretty even-keel person on the happiness scale, despite many trips "through the mill" of relationships, lack of jobs, deaths of friends and relatives. But his love of his son and of his music have always pulled him through.
"I do believe the traditional landmarks of happiness are myths," Berk said. "And when those don't work, we often turn to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling/food to 'fix' our unhappiness. True contentment and joy must first come from within."
Gail and Mike Udkow, of Oakland, agree that happiness is typically internal, but there are exceptions. "A lot of the way people see the world is inborn temperament," Gail Udkow said. "But also, well, we're doing OK financially. If you don't have enough money or food, you can't just change your mind and suddenly be happy about everything."
Lyubomirsky admits that she's not talking about the extremes of clinical depression or poverty. "Certainly if we're in bad relationships, if we're poor and we don't have basic needs met, we're gonna be unhappy," she said. "But for others in average circumstances, happiness can often be a matter of mindset."
Put on a happy face?
The search for lasting joy is nothing new. It has been addressed in everything from ancient proverbs to catchy '80s tunes ("Don't Worry, Be Happy!"), with a tsunami of self-help books and positive-thinking seminars in between. Critics say positive psychology may be just another phase, but research in this field has been under way for years. And researchers aren't just donning rose-tinted glasses. Instead, they argue that they have the science of controlled experiments on the effect of good emotions to back them up.
"Most researchers define happiness by two components: the emotional and the cognitive," Lyubomirsky said. "Emotional being how often you experience positive emotions, tranquility, joy, pride in accomplishments. And, second, the cognitive of whether you are progressing toward your goals in life."
At the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, director Barbara Fredrickson has spent the past decade studying the mental and physical effects of the most positive emotion of all: love.
Her book, "Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become," which hit bookstores last week, isn't about romantic love per se. Rather, it's what she calls "micro-moments of connection" between people -- even total strangers -- that can produce biological transformations within your brain rhythms, your bloodstream, your heart functions.
"We're wired to be able to connect with other people," Fredrickson said. "Increasingly in our culture, we put intermediaries in between us and other people. A computer screen in front of you is not the same thing as this in-person contact.
"It's the positive emotions we co-experience with others, share, that are the most powerful nutrients for our health and happiness, as nutritious to our bodies as the greens we eat for health," she said.
"Don't underestimate that smile you share with the person you pass on the street," she added.
Some of Lyubomirsky's research has involved "happiness interventions" -- kind of like drug trials, she said. One of her favorite examples is an experiment with fourth- to sixth-graders who were asked to do three acts of kindness in a month. Not only did they become happier themselves, but they became better liked by classmates.
"Most of the acts were done at home," she said. "They kept logs of what they did, things like 'I vacuumed the living room,' or 'I gave my mom a hug when she looked sad.' But somehow those feelings of affection, of confidence rubbed off onto how they felt about themselves at school," and other kids picked up on that change.
"Sustaining happiness can take some effort -- not taking your spouse for granted, showing sincere appreciation, writing gratitude letters even if you don't deliver them," Lyubomirsky added. By making a conscious effort to practice these positive actions, we often can affect our mindset and defy the cultural myths that bind us.
"In sum," she writes, "when we are facing an epiphany or a major life change, it's natural to want to act quickly and instinctively. But there is great value to waiting and thinking, and not rushing to conclusions. Our first thought will only get us so far. Although it isn't easy to identify an optimal course of action, we can begin by rejecting our first thoughts and, instead, leaving ourselves open to multiple potential responses to life's crisis points."
Sonja Lyubomirsky, "The Myth of Happiness"