I knew it was coming. It was the polite and standard question you always ask someone you just met: “What do you do for a living?” I responded, as I always do, that I am a psychologist.
Then, I braced myself. I had just given this woman a perfect setup for a joke I had heard countless times before, and she seized it by quipping, “Oh, are you going to psychoanalyze me?” Sighing inwardly, I chuckled and replied, “Actually, I’m not a clinical psychologist. I do research on happiness.”
What began as a polite inquiry instantly transformed into genuine curiosity. The woman wanted to know more about my research—how do I study happiness, what do my studies look like, and, most importantly, do I have any advice for her? I have had this same conversation dozens of times, but I don’t mind. It’s important for me to be reminded that people are intrigued by the notion of happiness and that I am very fortunate to study it.
All over the world, people agree that happiness is important and worth pursuing1. However, as we experience the inevitable twists and turns of life, we quickly discover that this pursuit can be challenging and quite different from what we originally expected. Most people have a strong opinion regarding what happiness is or how it can be attained. Unfortunately, there is tremendous variety in what people believe about happiness, and following the advice of others can often be a roll of the dice. Indeed, an Internet search for the word “happiness” produces over 177 million results! This gives us a huge collection of tips, strategies and teachings that are meant to help us. But how can we possibly sort through so much information to find what suits us best? Furthermore, once we find something that we like, how do we know that it really helps?
For several years I have been a researcher in personality and social psychology. My specialty is a truly fascinating topic: human happiness. Through years of rigorous research from some of the most brilliant psychologists in the world, the scientific study of happiness has produced very useful information regarding its nature and how it can be attained for a sustained period of time. For example, studies indicate that the expression of gratitude is very effective in boosting long-term happiness2. This includes activities such as listing the blessings in your life or writing a letter of thanks to someone (sending it is optional!). If these strategies sound like something you would like to try, consider how often you do them. One study showed that counting blessings once a week was more effective than doing the same activity three times a week3! As the saying goes, sometimes less is more.
1 Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34-43. 2 Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (in press). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion. 3 Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131. 4Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237. 5 Ma, S. H., & Teasdale, J. D. (2004). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: replication and exploration of differential relapse prevention effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 31–40.
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