New science shows how to inject real joy into your life
There's an ancient tale of happiness that appears in many cultures, and it goes something like this: Once there was a prince who was terribly unhappy. The king dispatched messengers to find the shirt of a happy man, as his advisers told him that was the only cure. They finally encountered a poor farmer who was supremely content. Alas, the happy man owned no shirt.
Ahhh, happiness. Ineffable, elusive, and seemingly just out of reach. For most of the 20th century, happiness was largely viewed as denial or delusion. Psychologists were busy healing sick minds, not bettering healthy ones. Today, however, a growing body of psychologists is taking the mystery out of happiness and the search for the good life. Three years ago, psychologist Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, rallied colleagues to what he dubbed "positive psychology." The movement focuses on humanity's strengths, rather than its weaknesses, and seeks to help people move up in the continuum of happiness and fulfillment. Now, with millions of dollars in funding and over 60 scientists involved, the movement is showing real results. Far from being the sole product of genes, luck, delusions, or ignorance, happiness can be learned and cultivated, researchers are finding.
Decades of studying depression have helped millions become less sad, but not necessarily more happy--a crucial distinction. When you alleviate depression (no mean task), "the best you can ever get to is zero," says Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But "when you've got a nation in surplus and at peace and not in social turmoil," he explains, "I think the body politic lies awake at night thinking about `How do I go from plus 2 to plus 8 in my life?' "
Indeed, people in peaceful, prosperous nations aren't necessarily getting any happier. Though census data show that many measures of quality of life have risen since World War II, the number of people who consider themselves happy remains flat. And people are 10 times as likely to suffer depression as those born two generations ago. Researchers have scads of information on what isn't making people happy. For example, once income provides basic needs, it doesn't correlate to happiness. Nor does intelligence, prestige, or sunny weather. People grow used to new climates, higher salaries, and better cars. Not only does the novelty fade but such changes do nothing to alleviate real problems--like that niggling fear that nobody likes you.
Happiness helpers. Scientists also know what works. Strong marriages, family ties, and friendships predict happiness, as do spirituality and self-esteem. Hope is crucial, as is the feeling that life has meaning. Yes, happy people may be more likely to have all these things at the start. But causality, researchers find, goes both ways. Helping people be a little happier can jump-start a process that will lead to stronger relationships, renewed hope, and a general upward spiraling of happiness.
The average person has a head start. Decades of international survey research suggest that most people in developed nations are basically happy. This tendency toward mild cheerfulness may have evolved to keep people moving--glum ancestors would have moped, not mobilized.