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    What Makes Us Happy?

    BT052914-ONLINE-3No question that we can ask is more important in helping us direct our lives than “What will make me hap­py?” But few of us ever seriously con­sider the question, because we assume that we already know the answer. We think it’s self-evident that getting what we want will make us happy. But is it really true that satisfying desire really delivers the goods? Oscar Wilde once said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

    There’s been a mountain of research on the subject of happiness, involving more than a million subjects on five continents, and in recent years psy­chologists have reviewed and summa­rized the findings. The results chal­lenge many conventional ideas.

    Almost everyone says that money doesn’t buy happiness, for instance, but we don’t really believe it. We as­sume that we’d be a lot happier if we suddenly came into a fortune. The research on this question showed that abject poverty— meaning lack of the primary necessities of food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and basic medical care—is misery. But it also showed that, once we have these basic necessities, further increases in afflu­ence have little effect on our sense of well being.

    Studies of lottery winners showed that there was initial elation after winning, but soon the general level of happiness returned to about what it was before winning. And unexpected complica­tions showed up when the winners quit their jobs and experienced lost relationships and lost sense of mean­ing and accomplishment. Some were even harassed by friends and relatives who expected financial assistance.

    The findings also showed that, con­trary to what many believe, we don’t become unhappier, lonelier, or more depressed as we age. Most people’s level of happiness is surprisingly stable throughout their lives. And the idea that everyone goes through a stressful “mid-life crisis” appears to be mostly myth. What actually happens is that, as we age, our feelings stabilize and mellow. Highs become less high, but lows also become less low.

    Contrary to the myth that the best looking people are the happiest, the research consistent ly found only a modest correlation between good looks and happiness, hardly enough to give scientif ic support to our culture’s intense obsession with our bodies.

    So what factors were correlated with happiness? The most important fac­tor seemed to be intimate and endur­ing relationships with others, and a sense of belonging to a community. And yes, in general, married or part­nered people were happier than single people. A second important factor was physical health. An avalanche of studies showed that regular aerobic exercise decreased anxiety and de­pression, and was correlated with a subjective sense of well being.

    An equally important finding was that happy people get adequate rest. Sleep deprivation, which is widespread in our culture, is associated with fatigue, diminished alertness, and gloomy moods. Also important to happiness are days of rest and regular time away from work and responsibility.

    A common belief is that we’d be hap­pier if we didn’t have to work, but the research showed that too much time on our hands is one of the greatest causes of unhappiness. We need to work to be happy—but in order for the work to foster happiness, we have to feel that it’s meaningful and that it creates value in the lives of others.

    By far, the most consistent f inding was that factors of age, health, sex, income level, race, education, marital status and life circumstances account­ed for only 15 to 20% of the variance in subjective well being. It appears that it isn’t our life circumstances themselves, but how we react to them that determine how happy we are. People who are self-accepting, opti­mistic, warm, sociable, and open to new experience are happier regard­less of their external circumstances. Those who have a sense of “self-ef­ficacy”—the feeling that they have what is needed to achieve important goals—are happier and handle set­backs with greater resilience. Those who are interested in being helpful to others, and who can take sympathetic pleasure in the good fortune of others, tend to be happier people.

    There’s a widespread assumption that if we aren’t happy, we need to change something outside of ourselves. We need a better boyfriend, more mon­ey, a new job, etc. But the research suggests that what goes on between our ears—the feelings, attitudes and values that govern our lives—are far more important in determining our happiness.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit