Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Way to Happiness

A Wonder Drug

In a taxicab on a rainy day in New York City, Gretchen Rubin, 41, suddenly asked herself what she wanted most in life. “I realized I wanted to be happy,” she recalls. “It was a lightning-bolt moment because I’d never even thought about it before.”

A couple of years ago, this wife, mother and former lawyer for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor launched a full-time happiness project to test-drive traditional and newly minted approaches toward her life goal. She kept a daily gratitude journal, read a poem every day and had regular date nights with her husband, among other strategies. Now she swears she’s cheerier.

Everyone seems to be jumping on the get-happier bandwagon. Happiness is making headlines, selling books, inspiring scientific studies and spawning laughter clubs and joyology workshops. The reason? As the burgeoning field of positive psychology has shown, happy people thrive. They’re more creative and productive, earn more money, attract more friends, enjoy better marriages, stay healthier and even outlive their grumpier peers.

“Imagine a drug that causes you to live eight or nine years longer, make $15,000 more a year, be less likely to get divorced,” says Martin Seligman, PhD, who started the positive psychology movement almost a decade ago. “Happiness seems to be that drug.”

But others wonder, Is this just one more thing we feel pressured to achieve in our overscheduled, overmeasured lives? How could there be one path to happiness for all people? And if we aren’t feeling blissful, are we failures at happiness? Some skeptics dismiss “happichondria” as the latest feel-good fad. “The notion that behavior modification can bring about true happiness is as bogus as can be,” says psychiatrist Charles Goodstein, MD, of New York University.

But happiness researchers, backed by thousands of studies, say happiness is measurable and buildable. If you’re willing to take a chance on the upside of life and shoot for your bliss, in spite of the naysayers, here’s help laying the groundwork.

Happy Nature Vs. Nurture
Genetics, as research on 4,000 sets of twins has demonstrated, accounts for about 50 percent of your happiness quotient. But even if you inherited the family frown instead of joy genes, you’re not fated to a life of gloom. Just don’t pin your hopes on advantages like health, wealth, education and good looks -- those bring only somewhat greater happiness than what those who are less blessed feel. Unless you’re extremely poor or gravely ill, life circumstances account for only about 10 percent of happiness. The other 40 percent depends on what you do to make yourself happy.

That’s the tricky part. Most of us assume that external things -- a bigger house, a better job, a winning lottery ticket -- will brighten our lives. While they do bring temporary delight, the thrill invariably fades. "After 18 years of studying happiness, I fell into the same trap as everyone else," says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. "I was so excited to get a new car, a hybrid I’d wanted for a long time, but within two months, driving it became routine. Happiness is like weight loss. We all know how to take off a few pounds; the trick is maintaining it."

In their research, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that the key to enduring joy is to look beyond fleeting pleasures, to the other pillars of what Seligman calls authentic happiness: engagement with family, work or a passionate pursuit, and finding meaning from some higher purpose. "Different methods are a better fit for different people," Lyubomirsky explains. "Keeping a daily gratitude journal seems hokey to some people, but writing a letter of gratitude may be very meaningful." Timing and "doses" also matter. Performing five acts of kindness on one day, she found, yielded a significant increase in well-being, while acts of kindness on different days didn’t. "To sustain happiness," she emphasizes, "you have to make the effort and commitment every day for the rest of your life.

The long run generally brings greater contentment, according to studies that chart the trajectory of happiness over a life span. After even the most joyous childhood, happiness typically declines in the teens through the early 20s, but, believe it or not, increases as we age. "Young people tend to pay more attention to the bad," explains neuropsychologist Stacey Wood, PhD, of Scripps College. "As we get older, we learn to regulate and overcome this reaction."

In fact, some experts say, happiness seems to rise even into old age. "Older adults don’t react as intensely to life events, and they report fewer negative emotions and more positive ones," says Wood.

Not everyone agrees. Nora Ephron, author of I Feel Bad
About My Neck, says that, yes, after a certain age you tend to factor the realization that life is short into your decisions. "And you try to eliminate people and things (like bad meals) that don't make you happy," she says. "But of course, all this is overlaid by a certain sadness because this is the time when people start to get sick, and that absolutely cuts into the happiness quotient."

Dare to Laugh Out Loud
Regardless of your age or temperament, you can feel happier right this minute, claims psychologist Will Fleeson, PhD, of Wake Forest University, who says he has found a surefire strategy to boost the spirit: Do something, however small, that is energetic, adventurous, assertive or bold. When volunteers recorded their feelings throughout the day, all felt happier when active and engaged, regardless of whether they were naturally introverted or extroverted.

“The biggest surprise in this research was that you can change your behavior and make yourself feel happier readily and easily,” says Fleeson, who found that almost any active behavior—even singing or dancing to the radio—has a positive effect on mood. “Laughing out loud is exactly the kind of adventurous, bold action that makes you feel happier.”

Simply putting on a happy face, as the classic song lyric advises, can make a difference. In experiments at Clark University, psychologist James Laird, PhD, hooked volunteers up to sham electrodes and instructed them to contract and relax specific facial muscles, so they were, in effect, smiling for no reason at all. With the corners of their mouths pulled up, most of the volunteers rated cartoons funnier than did those instructed to pull their eyebrows together as if frowning.

In other studies, smiling individuals recalled happier memories than those with furled brows or neutral expressions. Whenever we smile, nerves and muscles may transmit messages that turn on happiness centers in the brain, Laird speculates. “The bottom line is that a smile doesn’t cost anything and may do you good.” So why not grin?

Still, not everyone is sold on the power of positive thinking. According to Bowdoin College psychologist Barbara Held, PhD, for those with a glass-half-empty view of the world, all this happy talk can be downright depressing. In her book Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, Held wages war against the “tyranny of the positive attitude,” the put-on-a-happy-face mind-set, which she believes holds too much sway in American culture. Not everyone can strike a pose of sunny optimism in the face of life’s mishaps, Held says, and not everyone should. “If you try to force people to cope in ways that don’t fit their nature, it can do harm.”

So if you’re going through a rough patch, don’t feel bad about feeling bad. “When someone’s in pain over the loss of a job, the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one, telling them to be more optimistic and look on the bright side just adds insult to injury,” Held says. The person now feels bad for not coping more effectively, on top of everything else. Instead, having the freedom to complain to a friend, what Held calls creative kvetching, can be cathartic. Her message: The path to contentment depends on finding the coping strategy that suits you best, even if that means expressing anger or sadness along the way.

Smile Power
Whatever their disposition, Americans have plenty of reasons to smile, says Will Wilkinson, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, who recently reviewed social, economic and political perspectives on our national happiness. “We have more wealth, health and comforts than 99.9 percent of the people who have ever lived on the planet, and we feel as good as anyone ever has,” he says.

Gretchen Rubin says her personal quest for happiness has infused her life with meaning: “I realized that by working hard to keep a lighter tone, by taking time to be silly, to laugh more, to sing every morning, I managed to bring about deeper changes in myself—more loving and considerate feelings and actions. That’s why it’s a duty to be happy. When I put in the effort to take the steps that will make me happier, I’m far better able to make other people happier too.”

10 Ways to Turn That Frown Upside Down
1. Be less virtual, more 3-D. “If there’s one thing that separates happy people from ridiculously happy people, it’s the quality of their social relationships,” says psychologist Todd Kashdan of George Mason University. If you sit at a computer all day, get up and indulge in some human contact instead. Even time with strangers ramps up your sense of well-being, says Kashdan. “You laugh much harder when you’re with other people in a theater than when you watch a movie at home.”

2. 4, 6, 8 … who do we appreciate? Making a list of things you’re grateful for may seem silly, but it’s been proven to work. In fact, counting your blessings may be the single most helpful thing you can do for your happiness quotient, say experts.

3. Rack ’em up. Think of every positive experience during the day as a bead on a string, and see how they add up. This simple exercise makes you focus on even the smallest positive moments, like a fellow driver waving you to go first at a four-way stop, or an e-mail from a friend in a spam-filled inbox.

4. Think memorable, not material. If you have to choose between, say, a new car and a family vacation, pack your bags. Even the sexiest sports car becomes routine over time. But the memory of a good time with friends and loved ones will last forever.

5. Go to the funny side. “Humor is like salt on meat,” observes psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD. “It amplifies everything.” Watch reruns of classic shows that never fail to make you laugh. Try to smile at the absurdities of life. And when you read the jokes in this issue, laugh out loud.

6. Escape to your stress-free zone. Think of a place where you always feel calm and happy. Then, when you’re tense and miserable, call it up mentally, with as much detail as possible. Smell the suntan lotion. Feel the sun. Hear the sea. Play this video in your mind when your spirits slump.

7. See the glass as half full. Whenever possible, try to look at the bright side. You might be feeling like your life right now is one giant downhill slope. But if you stop and assess it honestly, you’ll see you actually have it pretty good. And if things truly are against you, see No. 8.

8. Find your inner artist. Think back to when you had time for creative expression. Were you in a rock band? Did you write poetry? Did you love tinkering with cars? Remember feeling so engaged that you lost track of time? Why not pick up that Fender (or fender) again? Joyful expression can bring happiness.

9. Do good. Acts of kindness, however small, deliver as much pleasure to the giver as to the getter. For example, a real paper-and-pen letter, telling someone who’s helped you how much it meant to you, is a surefire cheer-upper. So is giving time, money or both to a good cause.

10. Seize the moment. Rather than waiting to celebrate a big event, why not do it today? Bake a cake just because. Take someone out to lunch. Buy pink nail polish. Have sex in the afternoon. Raise a toast to a good day. Go ahead, be happier.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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