For psychologists who frequently fly cross-country, how we describe our career to seatmates—mentioning for example, that we are psychologists—determines whether we get five hours of airborne intrigue or inside access to a decaying marriage or more detail than you can imagine about an inability to resist maple-glazed Krispy Kremes. Even wearing oversized headphones often fails to dissuade the passenger hell-bent on telling her story of childhood abandonment (which is why it is handy for research psychologists to simply say we study ” judgments”). For those of us who risk the truth and admit that we study happiness, there’s one practically guaranteed response: What can I do to be happy?
The secret of happiness is a concern of growing importance in the modern era, as increased financial security has given many the time to focus on self-growth. No longer hunter-gatherers concerned with where to find the next kill, we worry instead about how to live our best lives. Happiness books have become a cottage industry; personal-development trainings are a bigger business than ever.
The pursuit of happiness is not uniquely American either—in a study of more than 10,000 participants from 48 countries, psychologists Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia discovered that people from every corner of the globe rated happiness as being more important than other highly desirable personal outcomes, such as having meaning in life, becoming rich, and getting into heaven.
The fever for happiness is spurred on, in part, by a growing body of research suggesting that happiness does not just feel good but is good for you—it’s been linked to all sorts of benefits, from higher earnings and better immune-system functioning to boosts in creativity.
Most people accept that true happiness is more than a jumble of intensely positive feelings—it’s probably better described as a sense of “peace” or “contentedness.” Regardless of how it’s defined, happiness is partly emotional—and therefore tethered to the truth that each individual’s feelings have a natural set point, like a thermostat, which genetic baggage and personality play a role in establishing. Yes, positive events give you a boost, but before long you swing back toward your natural set point.
True happiness lasts longer than a burst of dopamine, however, so it’s important to think of it as something more than just emotion. Your sense of happiness also includes cognitive reflections, such as when you give a mental thumbs-up or thumbs-down to your best friend’s sense of humor, the shape of your nose, or the quality of your marriage. Only a bit of this sense has to do with how you feel; the rest is the product of mental arithmetic, when you compute your expectations, your ideals, your acceptance of what you can’t change—and countless other factors. That is, happiness is a state of mind, and as such, can be intentional and strategic.