What really makes us happy? Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The Myths of Happiness," debunks happiness lore and shares the science behind true satisfaction.
You might think that happiness is pretty much a product of chance. Maybe it comes from meeting the right person, or finding the right job, or having a supportive family. But in recent years, research has been piling up on the real causes of — and obstacles to — happiness. And they’re not always what you might think.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The Myths of Happiness,” knows what makes you happy. It’s not always glamorous — recent neuroscience research has seen increased activity on the left side of the brain’s frontal cortex in happy people. As study participants practiced mindfulness meditation techniques and focused on the positive aspects of their life, their brains began to display this unique activity.
The Grass Isn’t Greener
But what about the old clichés of happiness? That it comes from love, or money, or luck? Lyubomirsky wants to debunk those myths. Being happy, she says, is not about finally starting a family or getting a promotion.
“These things do make us happy, undoubtedly, they give us a boost in happiness,” she says. “But research shows that that boost in happiness does not last for a very long time.”
For example, that happy newlywed glow that comes from being married? That only lasts two years. After the honeymoon phase, Lyubomirsky says, people return to their baseline level of happiness — the way they feel when nothing special is happening in their life.
The shift is a phenomenon called "hedonic adaptation," and it helps us adjust to both negative and positive changes. Hedonic adaptation explains why it’s never quite so bad as you imagine to move into a smaller house or sell your car. As it turns out, people are unusually prone to look on the bright side of negative events.
“Human beings are remarkably resilient…they’re really good at rationalizing what happens to them and making the best of it, growing stronger as a result,” Lyubomirsky says.
Hedonic adaptation doesn’t just apply to love and relationships — it affects our lives everywhere, even in the workplace. Lyubomirsky shares a study that followed business managers who made an exciting job change over five years. Guess what? The change made the managers happy, but it didn’t last.
In Search of Happiness
There is an antidote to hedonic adaptation: change. Lyubomirsky thinks we call variety the spice of life for a reason.
“One way to slow down or thwart…that adaptation is by introducing novelty and variety and surprise into our lives, because we don’t adapt to things that are novel,” she says.
So next time you’re feeling like your relationship is going sour or your job is disappointing, take a cooking class or pitch a new project before surrendering hope.
Lyubomirsky also suggests eliminating expectations about what happiness should look like. But you have to find a balance — tempering your expectations for everything in your life can lead to unhappiness, too.
“Let’s say you’re at work. If you’re about to give a presentation, you want to have high expectations, because that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Lyubomirsky says. “But when you think about your work in general, you want to prevent your expectations from escalating too much…there’s always going to be some dimension, whether it’s your flexibility, your supervisor, your colleagues, your stress level — there’s always going to be some dimension that doesn’t measure up.”
Luckily, there are lots of other ways to get your brain on the path to happiness. Research shows that pursuing meaningful work, investing in relationships, spirituality, and physical education are all associated with happiness.
And the last secret of happiness? Older people tend to be happier. So if you haven’t found your bliss quite yet, maybe it’s a couple decades down the line.
WATCH: Sonja Lyubormirsky Talks About Her Career Studying Happiness