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A Conversation With Sonja Lyubomirsky

Happiness expert talks about the secrets to happiness, what age has to do with it and why it means something different to Americans

Sonaj Conversation

Brian Guido

Happiness expert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, on the secrets to happiness.

Happiness can mean lots of different things to different people. What do you think is the biggest misconception?

That it's all about pleasure and feeling good. Happiness is a lot more than that. It's about engagement and meaning and progressing toward your goals.

Why is that so important?

People who are happy accrue a lot of positive outcomes. They're healthier, more creative and have better relationships. Happy people are not as self-centered as unhappy people. They're more generous and other-focused.

Would getting rich make me happy?

It might if you're poor. But if you're already comfortable, it won't make you as happy as you think.

Why not?

Some research suggests that it's not having money that matters; it's how you spend it. If you're spending your money on helping others or on experiences like taking your friends out to dinner or learning new things, that can make you happy.

Does happiness have a correlation with age?

People get happier as they get older. The least happy are probably teenagers and people in their 20s. We get happier at midlife, but the peak is, depending on the study, around 65 or 70.

Why the arc?

One Stanford researcher has a theory that older people are, in a sense, emotionally wiser. They know what makes them happy, which often means spending time with people who make them happy. When you ask younger people who they'd have lunch with, if they could invite anyone, they're more likely to choose a celebrity. Older people will say "My sister."

The World Happiness Report recently ranked Denmark as the happiest country in the world. One of my colleagues did a study showing that the Danish had relatively low expectations. Maybe that's why they're happier.

How is the American view of happiness different from that of other countries?

Comparing Russia with the United States, I found that the Russians' definition of happiness was much grander. They talked about being happy when there's world peace. With the Americans it was all about money, fun and family — things that are more attainable.

So what's the real answer?

Part of happiness is genetic, and part is determined by life circumstances. The rest is what we can do. The truth is, your attitude and how you think and behave can have a lot of influence on your level of happiness. It's amazing to me how many aren't aware of that.

You talk about striking a balance between being in the present moment and making progress toward meaningful goals.

Absolutely. Most people are either present-oriented or future-oriented. The ideal is a combination of present and future, with a tiny bit of the past. I'm mostly future-oriented, but I'm also pretty good at being in flow — being so absorbed and engaged in something that time falls away. I feel sorry for people who don't have any flow in their lives.

What do you do personally to stimulate flow?

Work, mostly. Not all work activities but certain kinds, like editing a paper and really getting into it. That often gives me flow. So does talking to strange people, eating, watching TV, taking a walk.

What strategies do you recommend for getting flow going?

I ask students to keep a diary and write down what they're doing and whether or not they're in flow, four times each day. It's a good way to learn which activities put you in flow.

What about schadenfreude, or being happy when others fail?

I used to think happy people felt good because they compared themselves to people who are worse off, and unhappy people felt bad because they compared themselves to those who were better off. That was completely wrongheaded. When I asked people whom they compared themselves to, the happy ones didn't even know what I was talking about. Sometimes they compared themselves to others, but they didn't let those comparisons affect their sense of self-worth as much as the unhappy people did.

Isn't there a danger of focusing too much on happiness?

Yes. If you're constantly asking yourself, "Am I happy yet?" it's going to backfire. You're better off trying to be more generous or grateful or forgiving — whatever works for you. If you do that, happiness will be a byproduct.

Hugh Delehanty is a freelance journalist and former editor in chief with AARP Publications.