Relevant Article on Happiness #2

Sonja Lyubomirsky, who apparently is on the faculty at Stanford, wrote this piece on her faculty page explaining why some people are happier than others.

She first identifies several cognitive and mental processes:

1)How people compare themselves to peers

2)How people justify trivial and important life choices

3)How people judge themselves

4)How people think about others

Happy people, according to her research, systematically differ from unhappy people regarding these processes.  Happy people construe events in a way that reinforce their happiness, whereas unhappy people construe the same event in a way that reinforces their unhappiness.  More importantly, happy people show a greater ability to adapt and react to life events in a positive way.  She doesn’t say this, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that the mind of a chronically happy and chronically sad person are wired differently on a fundamental level.

The only critique I have of this entire article is she says that the chronically unhappy dwell on negative and ambiguous events.  Fair enough.  She then considers the cognitive drain and other “maladaptive by-products of self-reflection” before implying that it is possibly better to not examine your life, because it will cause you to be less than happy.  Basically an ignorance is bliss sort of approach.

I agree with her on a simplistic level- I’m not very sad when I’m sleeping.  Nor, however, am I very happy.  I’m in an emotional stasis, similar to the animals I looked at below.  I think that we owe it to ourselves to examine our lives deeply in the search of greater happiness.

 Being happy is not all about being happy.  I’ll say that again- one cannot reach the greatest level of happiness in one’s life unless you work for it.  For the sake of argument, say that you have a small jar of happiness.  You’re content, but not thrilled to be breathing or ecstatic to be alive.  You know that you could be happier and get a larger jar of happiness, but that would require you to search for it, make some hard decisions, and put in some actual work.  So for a period of time, your jar would be emptied as you expended happiness in the search for a greater happiness.

 It’s worth it.

Not examining your life or increasing your happiness because it might make you unhappy is patently absurd.  If I have a nasty cut on my leg, I’m not just going to put on some jeans and avoid going to the doctor just because it would be an unpleasant experience.  Undergoing that unpleasant experience will increase my happiness in the long run, so it’s a valid one.  The same should be true for the emotional scars we carry on the inside- ones that often run far deeper.

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4 Responses

  1. I agree with some of her points and some of yours. I’ve made a study of my husband of 25 years who is basically the happiest person I know. With him it is a matter of not being incredibly introspective and not dwelling on negative things. He’s incredibly well-balanced and adaptable. He always exagerates (in my view) the good things and sort of dismisses the bad things. Sometimes I will have gone to an event with him and presenced everything he did but when I hear him describe it to someone else it sounds like we went to two different places! He makes everything sound awesome!

    He always sees the best in other people (unless they consistently let him down to the point where he can’t ignore it any longer.)

    When terrible things happen to him he’s sad for a while, but he always bounces back, like a ship righting itself . He always find some outlet, be it physical or creative, in which to work out his emotions and then he’s fine. It’s amazing to live with someone like this when you are not like that yourself. I’m a content person myself but tend toward the negative view of things. My depressions, though not clinical or anything, seem to drag on forever. When my husband is unhappy, he finds some constructive way out of the situation or around the person causing it, etc. He never does anything self-destructive.

    There’s no question that being a happy person is an advantage in every way in life.

  2. I do think that men are very rational creatures and that women tend to be more emotional.

    I once read in the book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” that this is what causes a lot of arguments- even though neither person realizes it, they are arguing about two separate things.

    The example used in the book was a wedding cake. To a woman, it represents the wedding and their future together- she’s attached a greater significance to it. To a man, it’s pretty much a fancy pastry that probably tastes good. If the cake were to be destroyed, the man would be perturbed but the woman would be devestated- because she attaches a greater meaning to it. His response would be to replace it. Her response would be that it’s irreplaceable. Later he wouldn’t understand why she’s so upset. She’d be upset because she thinks he doesn’t care.

    Granted, I’m not saying that either perspective is wrong, or that one is superior to the other. However, they’re both different, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

    If you go back 1500 years, men really couldn’t afford to be emotional. If you felt pity for the deer, your entire family might very well starve. If you noticed how cold it was outside and got depressed about it, you probably weren’t a very effective hunter. So the men that were the most rational were able to provide best for their families.

    Likewise, women during that time usually stayed home and raised the children, which required a huge amount of emotional capacity to do well. If anything, being a good parent involves communication skills and a grand sense of empathy. Those who were the most emotionally intelligent in their group were probably looked upon with esteem and respect- even by the rational hunters, who saw them as suitable mates. Likewise, the women looked to rational men who could provide for the family.

    A lot has changed since then, and the roles are often reversed. However, the change has happened recently (arguably the late 1940’s) and there’s been nowhere near enough time for the present day reality of gender roles to compete with the omnipresent influence of generations and generations who grew up under the prior patterns- our entire literary history in Western civilization is focused on the male warrior who rescues the emotional female. Popeye is a perfect example. So even as we try to escape these bonds, culture keeps subconsciously pulling us in.

  3. John, John, you say in your post on Trent’s thesimpledollar.com page that you don’t believe in pop psychology and then you quote Men are From Mars, to me? Tsk, tsk!
    Our wedding cake was like the leaning tower of Pisa because it almost fell over when they installed it and I couldn’t care less. It’s cake, right? You can still eat it.! In fact, I am not sentimental at all about anything except animals.
    I am an INTJ woman and my husband is an ENFJ–much more emotional than me, much more empathetic and certainly higher on the EQ scale than I, that’s why he relates so well to people! He’s happier because of the way he handles his emotions, not because he suppresses them. He says that I’m much more logical than he is and he’s a scientist!
    (And frankly, having met most of his colleagues, I have to disagree with any stereotype about scientists being so logical–they really aren’t.any more logical than the next person, it seems to me!)
    BTW, you might be interested in an article in the Miami Herald that mentions a study done on happiness–she didn’t provide the source, however, but it sounds interesting, since you’re making a study of happiness:

    “The 40s Slump: Just last month, a new international study — which analyzed more than 35 years of data on measures such as depression, anxiety, mental well-being, happiness and life satisfaction — found that men and women in their 40s were more likely to be depressed than their older or younger counterparts. For both genders, the lowest point is age 44. The study also found that happiness over people’s lifetimes seems to follow a U-shape curve. Midlife represented the lowest point of that curve.”

    From the Miami Herald, 2/12/2008, 5 Things You Didn’t Know About…. Midlife Crisis by Jodi Mailander Farrell

  4. Thanks for the reference to the article- I will indeed take a look at it.

    I perhaps should have prefaced my earlier comment by saying that the rational/emotional stereotype is certainly not universal. I’ve met females who were more rational that I, and men that were certainly more emotional than any woman I’ve ever known. It’s not a constant.

    That said, the vast majority of people I’ve encountered have fallen into that line. Part of that might be that I live in the Bible Belt, and people still feel compelled to match expectations. So what I read in the book matched my experiences, so I gave it greater credence.

    Here’s an example from my life that took me a while to learn. If my wife comes to me with a problem, my first thought is to solve the problem. Makes perfect logical sense to me- solving the problem will make it go away. My wife, on the other hand, just wants me to listen to the problem and tell her everything is going to be alright. In my mind, that doesn’t solve the problem, but that’s what she needs to feel better.

    It’s not that men “suppress” their emotions, so much as their problem-solving abilities have been more acutely developed in childhood than their emotional capacity. We obviously have emotions, of course, but they’re generally more muted- take the screaming women on the Oprah show when she gave away a free car- I’m not sure men would have reacted in such a universally ecstatic manner. I would have been happy, but I wouldn’t have jumped around and screamed like that, I can assure you.

    Thinking about it, thought, part of that might have to do with the fact that I’m fairly sure I have Aspergers. But that’s for another post.

    Take away the wedding cake analogy- imagine if a woman was to get a giant stain on her wedding dress before the ceremony. She’d most likely be devestated. From a male’s perspective, it’s just a stain and in no way interfere’s with the marriage ceremony. He wouldn’t be terribly distraught if he got a similar stain on his suit. But to her, the day has just gotten much worse.

    Thanks for your input- you help to sharpen my focus and reevaluate my views on the subject.

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