Contentment queen finds a happy medium

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, you have a happiness set point.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, you have a happiness set point. It's partly encoded in your genes. If something good happens, your sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls. But either way, before too long, your mood will creep back to its set point because of a powerful and perverse phenomenon referred to in science as "hedonic adaptation". You know, people get used to things.

With her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, and this year's follow-up, The Myths of Happiness, Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, caused ripples in her field but also drew a wider audience, cementing her place in a long chain of happiness-industry stalwarts, from M. Scott Peck with The Road Less Travelled and Martin E.P. Seligman with Learned Optimism to Daniel Gilbert and his best-selling Stumbling on Happiness.

Lyubomirsky's findings can be provocative and at times counterintuitive. Renters are happier than homeowners, she says. Interrupting positive experiences makes them more enjoyable. Acts of kindness make people feel happier, but not if you are compelled to perform the same act too frequently. (Bring your lover breakfast in bed one day, and it feels great. Bring it every day, and it feels like a chore.)

Lyubomirsky - 46, Russian, and about to give birth to her fourth child - is an unlikely mood guru. "I really hate all the smiley faces and rainbows and kittens," she said. She doesn't often count her blessings or write gratitude letters, both of which she thinks sound hokey, even though her research suggests they make people happier.

For years, she even worried that the study of how to increase happiness would make her work sound too lightweight. For a decade, she focused instead on categorising characteristics of happy and unhappy people with clinical, almost anthropological detachment. But friends, family members, students, reporters - everyone - kept asking: How does it work? How can you make yourself happier?

So Lyubomirsky finally turned her research towards those questions. Now, according to Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, "Sonja is the queen of happiness. She's one of the few people that actually does research on happiness per se."

Recently, for instance, a young post-doctoral student knocked on Lyubomirsky's office door, seeking her opinion. The student was thinking of designing a study to see if expectant fathers were happier after their wives gave birth. Or maybe she should study what's the most happiness-inducing way for a woman to tell her partner she's pregnant? (Lyubomirsky, who is fairly practised in this department, liked the second option.)

Among the big dials people can tune to affect personal happiness is how much we compare ourselves to others. As Lyubomirsky has found in her lab, unhappy people compare a lot and care about the results. They tend to feel better when they get poor evaluations but learn others did worse, than when they get excellent evaluations but learn others did better.

In one experiment, documented in The Myths of Happiness, Lyubomirsky asked two volunteers at a time to use hand puppets to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of children. Afterward the puppeteers were evaluated against each other: you did great but your partner did better, or you did badly but your partner was even worse.

The volunteers who were happy before the puppeteering review cared a bit about hearing that they had performed worse than their colleagues but largely shrugged it off. The unhappy volunteers were devastated. Lyubomirsky writes: "It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: 'For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself . . . One's friends must fail."' This, she says, is probably why a great number of people know the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another's misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another's success).

Lyubomirsky is a surprising apostle of mirth. Born in Moscow, she emigrated with her parents and brother to the United States at age nine. Settling in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the Lyubomirsky elders didn't adapt very quickly: both switched to jobs for which they were hugely overqualified. For years, Lyubomirsky's mother cried every time she heard Tchaikovsky. Sonja taught herself English by watching The Love Boat. (She speaks without an accent.)

During her first semester at Harvard, she took a course from Brendan Maher, the professor credited with changing psychology from a soft science based on descriptions to a hard one based on data, and decided she wanted to major in the field. After college, she moved to Stanford, where her graduate school adviser, Lee Ross, took her for a walk in the school's Rodin sculpture garden and suggested she study happiness.

"At the time," Lyubomirsky recalled, "only one person was studying happiness: Edward Diener. Back then it was called 'subjective wellbeing' and the topic was considered very fuzzy."

These days, Lyubomirsky is not so thrilled with how the field of positive psychology has been pigeonholed. The term bothers her. She thinks the word "positive" is unnecessary, in the same way some are bothered by the word "gay" in gay marriage. It's all marriage, right?

"I'm really not interested in happy people," she insisted. "I'm interested in how happiness changes over time and what strategies can increase happiness."

At home, Lyubomirsky's two older children - a daughter, 14, and a son, 11 - seem most consumed not with happiness but with annoyingness, ranking everybody in the family on that scale, including their two-year-old sister. (Lyubomirsky came in first.)

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