This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books and was written by Natasha Lennard.
This is a heavily edited excerpt.
In “The Myths of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky identifies several important mistakes that we make in pursuing happiness. Lyubomirsky is a leading contributor to what might be called the science of happiness, and her previous best-selling book, “The How of Happiness,” is a compendium of advice about how to make good lives better. Lyubomirsky has argued that roughly half the variation between people in happiness is genetic and essentially unmodifiable. But that still leaves plenty of room for us to improve our lives. We can improve our lives by changing our life circumstances (e.g., finding a loving mate or a rewarding job). But we can do even more by changing the way we think about or construe our life circumstances as they are.
In the new book, here is some of what we learn:
People think they’ll be happy if only they find the right romantic partner. They don’t realize that they may already have done so, but that, as relationships mature, some of the steam goes out of them — an inevitable result of what is called “hedonic adaptation.” If people are aware that this adaptation is coming, they may be grateful for what is good in their relationships instead of casting about restlessly to replace what seems to have been lost.Just as we adapt to our life partners, we adapt to our work. And here, too, the trick is in knowing to expect adaptation rather than feverishly looking to change jobs in search of that lost excitement.Variety can reduce or forestall adaptation, so that introducing variety into the day-to-dayness of your relationship can boost your satisfaction with it.
Positive emotions are the best antidote to the vicious cycle of negative emotions. Indeed, positivity can create a virtuous circle in which the more positive you are, the better your relationships will be and the better your work will be (much of the research behind this claim was done by Barbara Fredrickson, author of one of the books under review).
Parenting may bring many hours and days of misery. It certainly eats into opportunities to do other things that make you happy. And when children leave the nest, marital satisfaction soars. But having kids seems to be worth it. Almost no parent regrets having had kids. Having and raising children seems to add meaning to a life.
But, the daily hassles matter. Little annoyances that you think ought to be too trivial to care about add up, so it is important to pay attention to the small stuff.And the same goes for small pleasures.
Regular, small pleasures can add up to a lot more than a few big ones. You adapt to that fancy car long before you’ve paid it off. A day at the beach, coffee with a friend, a trip to the spa, a delicious croissant — these small pleasures we don’t adapt to because they are many and varied.People tend to think that material things will make them happy. In fact, experiences do a lot more for our happiness than possessions.
People focus on where they stand in relation to others as a sign of their success. This kind of social comparison undermines happiness.People emphasize the “pursuit of happiness” and undervalue the “happiness of pursuit.” In other words, people focus too much on the goal — the destination — and not enough on the journey.