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It’s 2008 – C’mon, get happy!

Feb. 1, 2008
So, you think you know what makes you HAPPY? The study of happiness has attracted researchers, economists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and students from all over the world.

So, you think you know what makes you HAPPY? The study of happiness has attracted researchers, economists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and students from all over the world. Many seek a magic pill, while others assume a spiritual position for meditation to achieve this elusive thing we call happiness. Happiness is defined as a noun. Yet, it is a series of events in our life, not something we can really possess. First, let’s talk about some puzzling but interesting new research on happiness. Then we’ll discuss how we can apply it to our everyday lives.

David Gilbert wrote an insightful new book titled “Stumbling on Happiness.” His research is a revelation. If you think you know what will make you happy, his years of research will astound you! In fact, you will quickly understand why his course on happiness is the most popular one presented at Harvard.

Students discover that our recollections of the past – as well as our creative imaginations of the future – are distorted and unpredictable. You’ll understand how some people are happy and don’t even know it! In fact, because our brains tend to make logical errors of omission about past memories, we cannot rely on them to determine our happiness as we remember it in the past. Because we will be a different person in different circumstances in the future, we cannot really predict what will make us happier then. We misperceive reality and use these misperceptions to build a mistaken view of the future. The visioning process by which we make our predictions into the future is simply flawed. That is scary!

We tend to simplify the future when we use our imagination. We leave out details which lead us to overestimate our happiness.

Happiness is elusive

All of this reminds me of the song Peggy Lee sang, “Is That All There Is?” Haven’t you felt disappointed when something you were so excited about came to pass and didn’t live up to your expectations? It explains why so many people get the “blues” at Christmas. It helps us to understand why we always look ahead to that next life event to bring us happiness. Surely, once that happens, we will be happy! The research clearly shows that the things we think will bring us happiness make us less happy than we anticipated. Also, the things we dread and think will bring us great unhappiness do not negatively affect us nearly as much as we think.

For example, being blind or disabled seems horrible. Yet, research shows these people are just as happy as anyone else. The anticipation of having a child brings the excitement of holding that little baby and watching it display sweet gestures of affection. When we think about the past or future, our minds blank out all except the emotional peaks and valleys. Our brains fabricate most of what we call memory. We tune out washing the diapers, sleepless nights, and the confinement required for the additional responsibilities, many of which are unpleasant. Gilbert tells us we suffer from “presentism” or thinking how we will feel in the future based on how we feel now. That leads to mistakes.

Suppose you enter the supermarket with no list. Do you really think you would buy the same items on a full or empty stomach? Research clearly shows your present feelings of hunger or fullness influences your future choices.

The road to happiness

So, is it hopeless to try to plan for happiness in the future? Gilbert’s research has an answer, but he explains it is an answer none of us will like or want to use. His answer is to consult with someone we trust who has been there and done what we think will make us happy. Ask that person whether or not it, indeed, made him happy.

While we all think we are unique, it turns out we are 95 percent similar on what brings happiness. Almost all of us like friends, great food, family, sex, laughter, beautiful sunsets, and sunrises. None of us likes war, poverty, illness, hurricanes, earthquakes, or seasickness.

As hard as it is to admit, humans are generally alike and only disagree marginally. Gilbert has an answer to trying to plan for happiness. He says the best way to know if something we want to do will make us happy is to ask someone we trust who has already traveled down the path we are about to take.

Here are some interesting observations from research that can help us understand happiness in our lives:

  1. Once you make $50,000 a year, the joy diminishes with additional dollars progressively. Multimillionaires are not much happier than those making $100,000. It’s like feeding pancakes to someone who is starving. The first five give tremendous satisfaction; the 20th will not make you much happier than the 19th.
  1. Happiness after $50,000 a year relies less on additional income than the fact that you are making more than others around you. That’s why dentists who brag about their income frustrate you so much.
  1. Your relative wealth will increase your happiness if it is more than others around you, but only if you think about it. It also is influenced by what you do with the money.
  1. Happiness increases with a good marriage, decreases with children, and increases with compatible sex.
  1. Happiness increases with the anticipation of the birth of a child, but decreases after the birth. Apparently, the loss of personal time, loss of privacy, and increased demands have a major negative influence.
  1. It is the frequency, not the intensity, of positive life events that leads to happiness. Moving to or being in a neighborhood you can afford can bring happiness, but buying too modest a home in an exclusive neighborhood can bring unhappiness as you routinely come home to a place that is not as impressive as your neighbor’s.
  1. A shorter commute to work reduces irritation and allows predictability, creating happiness. Traffic jams and waiting in bumper to bumper traffic to get to and from work negatively affects happiness.
  1. A new car only brings happiness at first. As soon as it has scratches, dents, and the new smell is gone, disappointment appears.
  1. While a marriage with good sex is apparently a primary factor for happiness, having a good family and friends takes second place. It is about people and relationships, not stuff.
  1. Happiness requires enjoyable leisure activities, avoiding the “same old same old,” and new challenges. Try some new activities. Create new experiences.
  1. If you still think it’s all about money, studies show that lottery winners are no more happy than the average person. Family and friends are envious. The new, wealthier friends remind you that you didn’t earn it with talent or hard work – you won it.
  1. Happiness requires a leap of faith. Most of us play it emotionally safe and stay with the familiar. By avoiding our imagined regrets, we give up our opportunity for happiness.

Most of us really do not want to hear these answers, since it is like being told to listen to your parents. Henny Youngman joked, “What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy money.”

Now we all can understand money’s limitation regarding happiness. Ponder some of these findings from the latest research. Use them to help you get more happiness out of your life, and I know I’ll see you at the top.

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Albert L. Ousborne Jr., DDS, is a practicing dentist in Towson, Md. He has served as president of the American Academy of Dental Practice Administration, and lectures on creating a successful practice with professionalism. Contact him at (410) 828-1177.

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