Saturday, September 15, 2007

Happiness for Dummies

How am I happy? Let me count the ways. Not too often, though. According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, people who three times a week wrote down what they were grateful for were than significantly less happy than those who did it only once a week. Lyubomirsky herself doesn’t do it at all. She told a reporter that she had tried counting her own blessings, and found it “hokey.”

This confirms my theory that people who study happiness don’t necessarily follow their own advice. And I would guess that many of the buyers of their books don’t follow it either. I say “buyers” because buying books on happiness-enhancement is not the same as reading them. I, for example, have a pile of such books, unread, on my bookshelf.

I have no reason to be unhappy, and I’m not. But I’m also not one of those cheery, upbeat people whose mood dial always points to warm and sunny. According to the popular “set point” theory, everyone is born with a happiness baseline to which they will return, no matter what life brings them.

This pessimistic finding has not prevented its author, psychologist David Lykken, from making his own contribution to the how-to-be-happier genre. In “Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment,” Lykken backpedals on his claim that happiness levels are unchangeable. He has come to believe that “There’s a lot people can do to be happier in life.”

For example? According to the latest happiness research, distilled in last week’s Time Magazine, some proven ways to get happier include: Have lots of sex, listen to music, get exercise, get rich, stay positive, stand up straight, have realistic expectations, and smile.

Reading this, I decided it was time to delve into my pile of happiness books, in the hopes I could glean something I hadn’t already thought of. First, I took a look at the best-selling “Stumbling on Happiness,” by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. Gilbert contends that the happiest people are those who have the greatest control over their lives. Not true in my experience. One of my happiest times in my life was when I had the least control over my days: as a new mother.

I moved on to “Authentic Happiness,” by the guru of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Seligman has distilled his theories into an equation: H = S + C + V. Happiness, he believes, is composed of your Set point, plus your life Circumstances, plus factors under your Voluntary control. In the voluntary part, he includes gratitude, forgiveness and – especially important -- reimagining your past and present to make them come out better. But such sugar coating won’t work for me; it would be a professional liability. Writers need to maintain an unflinching view of the past and present.

I began to wonder if any author of happiness self-help books ever admits entertaining a negative thought. I found the answer on my own bookshelf, in a 1935 book called “The Art of Happiness,” by John Cowper Powys. I don’t recall how I came into possession of this slim volume, but I warmed to it, starting with the title. Powys was a novelist, not a psychology professor, and it was promising that he considered happiness-increasing to be an art, not a science.

Powys’s credentials as a happiness guru include having been unhappy. “To confess the truth,” he wrote, “I have once and again. . . pulled myself out of the Slough of Despond.” This disarming admission made me like him all the more. His counsel includes having a flexible mind and paying heed to whatever floats your boat. “The more conjuring tricks we have in our pilgrim’s wallet the better,” he writes, “and I have no fanatical preference for my favorite magic over all the rest.”

And what should be the goal of following his precepts? He quotes a line from Wordsworth, “the pleasure which there is in life itself.”

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