<nyt_headline version=”1.0″ type=” “>Happiness Inc.
<nyt_byline style=”font-family: georgia, ‘times new roman’, times, serif; font-size: 13px; line-height: 18.75px;”>
By ELIZABETH WEIL
Published: April 19, 2013
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, you have a happiness set point. It’s partly encoded in your genes. If something good happens, your sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls.
Emily Berl for The New York Times
But either way, before too long, your mood will creep back to its set point because of a really powerful and perverse phenomenon referred to in science as “hedonic adaptation.” You know, people get used to things.
With her 2007 book, “The How of Happiness,” and this year’s follow-up, “The Myths of Happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, caused ripples in her field but also drew a wider audience, cementing her place in a long chain of happiness-industry stalwarts, from M. Scott Peck with “The Road Less Traveled” to Martin E. P. Seligman and “Learned Optimism” to Daniel Gilbert and his best-selling “Stumbling on Happiness.”
Dr. Lyubomirsky’s findings can be provocative and, at times, counterintuitive. Renters are happier than homeowners, she says. Interrupting positive experiences makes them more enjoyable. Acts of kindness make people feel happier, but not if you are compelled to perform the same act too frequently. (Bring your lover breakfast in bed one day, and it feels great. Bring it every day, and it feels like a chore.)
Dr. Lyubomirsky — 46, Russian and expecting to give birth to her fourth child this weekend — is an unlikely mood guru. “I really hate all the smiley faces and rainbows and kittens,” she said in her office. She doesn’t often count her blessings or write gratitude letters, both of which she thinks sound hokey even though her research suggests they make people happier.
For years, she even worried that the study of how to increase happiness would make her work sound too applied, too lightweight, too much like that of a life coach. For a decade, she focused instead on categorizing characteristics of happy and unhappy people with clinical, almost anthropological detachment. But friends, family members, students, reporters — everyone — kept asking: How does it work? How can you make yourself happier?
So Dr. Lyubomirsky finally turned her research toward those questions.
Now, according to Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, “Sonja is the queen of happiness.”
“She’s one of the few people that actually does research on happiness per se,” she said of Ms. Lyubomirsky’s ascent. “It’s a supply-and-demand issue.”
One day this winter, a young graduate student knocked on Dr. Lyubomirsky’s office door, seeking her opinion. The student was thinking of designing a study to see if expectant fathers were happier after their wives gave birth. Or maybe she should study what’s the most happiness-inducing way for a woman to tell her partner she’s pregnant? (Dr. Lyubomirsky, who is fairly practiced in this department, liked the second option.)
Later, another student fired up her laptop to discuss data that appeared off. “Look at this state of gratitude, that’s really weird,” Dr. Lyubomirsky said, puzzling over the graph. “What happened here? Was this March?” The school calendar influences student-research subjects: everybody is happier right after spring break.
Among the big dials people can tune to affect personal happiness is how much we compare ourselves to others. As Dr. Lyubomirsky has found in her lab (and many of us find around the office or at a bar), unhappy people compare a lot and care about the results. They tend to feel better when they get poor evaluations but learn others did worse than when they get excellent evaluations but learn others did better.
In one experiment, documented in “The Myths of Happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky asked two volunteers at a time to use hand puppets to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of children. Afterward the puppeteers were evaluated against each other: you did great but your partner did better, or you did badly but your partner was even worse.