Beskaitydamas Art Markman, Bob Duke PhD puikią mini istorijų-tyrimų knygą „Brain Briefs“, trumpam stabtelėjau dalyje „Can we really make ourselves happy?“. Kaip viskas aiškiai ir konkrečiai sudėliojama ir kaip keista, kad, tikriausiai, didžioji dalis perskaičiusiųjų vos užvertę knygą eis toliau kalti savo sėkmės formulės, nes, nu, kaip taip?..
Juk atrodo logiška, kad be pinigų, darbo, be mašinos, be nuosavo būsto, santuokos (nors šį dalyką tyrimas vis tik patvirtina), vasarnamio, antro automobilio, naujausio iPhone laimingas nebūsi. Ir visa tai yra projekcijos į ateitį – telefonas rytoj, kelionė už pusmečio, naujas darbas kitąmet, didesnis atlyginimas po metų, namas po trijų. Bet nepaisant dalykų (didesni ar mažesni jie), kuriais matuojame savo laimę, tyrimas po tyrimo kartoja tą pačią tiesą – šių dalykų atnešta laimė trunka labai trumpai, duok Dieve, jeigu dvi savaites, bet dažniausiai mažiau. Kiek laiko džiugina nauja suknelė, naujas telefonas? Sakoma, kad po poros mėnesių tiek žmogaus, kuriam traukinys pervažiavo kojas, tiek naujai iškepto milijonieriaus laimės jausmas grįžta į tą patį lygį, kuris buvo iki nutinkant tiems lemtingiems įvykiams. Nes žmogus prisitaiko ir tai tampa jo „new normal“.
Mane iki šiol stebina, kaip žmonės gaudami minimalų atlyginimą gyvena nuo atlyginimo iki atlyginimo, bet vos tik atlyginimas pakyla 5 ar net 10 kartų, greičiau nei per metus jie ir vėl pradeda gyventi nuo atlyginimo iki atlyginimo – naujai susikurti poreikiai puikiai dera su senomis problemomis. Darbas, atlyginimas, automobilis, telefonas – tai nėra blogi dalykai iš principo, ypač, jeigu suvoki ir įsivardini, kad jie neturi nieko bendra su tavo laime.
Ir vis tik pagrindinė mintis arba požiūrio kampas, kurį pasiėmiau iš konkrečiai „Can we really make ourselves happy?“ yra tai, kad neverta per kančias trejus metus statytis namo galvojant apie tai, kad va, kai pasistatysiu, tada ilgai ir laimingai gyvensiu, nes… laimė dėl šio naujo objekto atsiradimo mano gyvenime neužtruktų nė tiek, kiek truko kančia jį pasiekti. Ir nors namas čia tik pavyzdys, metafora, bet, neabejotinai, kiekvienas gyvenime turime tokių pavyzdžių, kur mėnesių mėnesius ar net metų metus gyvenom „miserable“ gyvenimus su užtaupytu laiku draugams, pramogoms, puikiam maistui, kentėm nekenčiamą darbą, kad vieną dieną pasiektume to… kas suteikė akimirkos laimę. Žinoma, galima sakyti, kad, na, o koks skirtumas ar žmogus jaučia laimę turėdamas kažką, būdamas kažkuo ar yra laimingas (jeigu išvis…) mintimi apie būsimą laimę? Tikriausiai, didžiausias skirtumas yra tas, kad viena yra tikra, čia ir dabar, o kita – netikra, neapibrėžta, kažkada ir kažkur, kurie gali ir neateiti. Bet gi mintimi apie būsimus pietus sotus nebūsi, o galvodamas apie būsimus sugyventinius, santuokos nesudarysi. Tai vyksta čia ir dabar.
Tekstas įkvėpęs šį įrašą yra žemiau (sorry, autoriai, bet tikiuosi, kad tai tik prisidės prie knygos populiarumo):
Art Markman, Bob Duke PhD
Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions about Your Mind
Can we really make ourselves happy?
About twenty years ago, there was a push in the field of psychology to shift focus away from studying the things that go wrong in people’s lives, like stress, and toward studying the things that go right, like well-being. This movement—aptly named positive psychology—was championed by Martin Seligman, who was then president of the American Psychological Association, and Ed Diener, a professor at the University of Illinois.
It was an especially interesting shift for Seligman to start studying what makes people feel good. One of his most prominent early lines of research explored learned helplessness, a behavior that develops after organisms (remember, we’re all organisms) are repeatedly exposed to inescapable, painful events. What’s learned from this experience is that trying to escape is pointless, and the remarkable result is that we organisms eventually give up and don’t attempt to escape even when it’s possible to do so. We’ll have a bit more to say about learned helplessness later in the book.
Seligman, Diener, and other psychologists recognized that in order to help people lead lives filled with happiness and a sense of well-being, it was necessary to first understand what happy, satisfying lives look like. Rather than focusing on what makes people miserable, they asked, What is it that makes people happy?
Research findings about happiness are interesting and in some ways counterintuitive. One of the most important findings is that individual happiness remains fairly stable over time. Some people are pretty happy (or satisfied with their lives) most of the time, while others are not so happy most of the time. Even with the vicissitudes of life’s events and the ups and downs that we all experience, everyone seems to have a level of happiness that remains relatively constant over the course of their lives. Researchers call these general levels of overall happiness set points.
Even though various life events, like getting a pay raise or ending a long-term relationship, can make us feel more or less happy in the short term, all of us tend to return to our set points over the long term. A death in the family understandably brings sadness that may last for weeks and months (or longer). Winning the lottery brings exhilaration and joy in the weeks and months following the windfall. But in most cases the subsequent events that we experience, combined with our own set points, tend to bring us back to the happiness level that we most often experience.
We could be forgiven for believing that our happiness is wholly dependent on what happens to us—what we gain and what we lose, what we accomplish and where we fail—and that the combination of life’s events is the sole determinant of our sense of well-being. But this is not actually how happiness is determined.
A study by the psychologist Dan Gilbert and his colleagues illustrates this point. They looked at college assistant professors and assessed how decisions about their being promoted in rank and earning tenure affected their happiness.
Tenure brings with it a tremendous amount of job security, and earning a promotion and tenure is a very big deal, with lasting life consequences. You might think that if somebody told you that you could keep the most awesome job in the world for as long as you wanted, you would be happy for the rest of your life. And conversely, if you were told that you couldn’t have that job anymore, you would feel devastated for a very long time.
One group of professors who were about to be evaluated for tenure were asked to predict how happy they would be in the months and years after their tenure decision. They made predictions about how they would feel if they were awarded tenure and how they would feel if they were denied tenure. It was no surprise that the professors predicted they would be happier if they got tenure than they would be if they didn’t, and they estimated that the effect of being denied tenure would last roughly five years.
A second group of professors who had already been evaluated for tenure—some who earned tenure and others who did not—were asked about their actual happiness after their cases had been evaluated and the decisions made. Did earning tenure make people happier? Not really. Those who had been denied tenure were just as happy, on average, as those had been awarded tenure. Sure, they were upset for a few months, but this major life event had much less influence on their lives than they had expected it would. Observations like this are probably the root of pillow-worthy adages like This too shall pass.
This does not mean that our overall levels of life satisfaction can never change, but studies of happiness among large groups of people over long periods of time reveal two interesting results that we mentioned earlier. First, from one year to the next there are fluctuations in happiness that are the result of changing circumstances. Second, as time passes after the emotional events, whether positive (like a great accomplishment) or negative (like a serious illness), we all tend to return to our set points, although it may take time for that to happen.
Findings about changes in long-term happiness may seem a tad depressing, especially for people who tend not to be very happy. When there are long-term changes in overall life satisfaction, those changes tend to be negative rather than positive—that is, we are more likely, on average, to become less happy over time than we are to become happier. This is because we are more likely to encounter life circumstances that cause problems and reduce happiness than we are to encounter favorable circumstances that improve our lot. Although the tendency for all of us is to return to our relative set points following positive or negative events, prolonged illness, unemployment, or death of a spouse, for example, can lead to long-term decreases in how happy we feel.
One factor that does tend to increase life satisfaction over the long term, however, is marriage. Even though movies and television often portray marriage as a source of stress, marriage actually tends to be a source of stability. That stability also helps us develop healthy long-term habits, which in turn help prevent illnesses that can decrease life satisfaction.
So what can we do to make ourselves happier? Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that happiness is not dependent on your achieving some momentary life goal. We see lots of people who have put their happiness on hold while they slog through days that are generally unsatisfying, all the while expecting that when they eventually reach their goal (graduating, getting married, finishing a book, having a child, buying a house), their happiness will be switched on for good.
Art tells a great story about hiking the Grand Canyon as a teenager. After reaching the bottom of the canyon, he began the long trek back to the top, a path that involves lots of long switchbacks that slowly lead back to the rim. You walk up the trail for a while, and then it turns back in the opposite direction and you walk some more. You can’t see much beyond the switchback, so it is hard to figure out how much progress you’ve made. You feel that the top must be right around the next bend. That expectation continues for a long time, until you finally (and happily) reach the top.
Expectations about life’s happiness may feel just like that. You figure that happiness is just around the next bend. It will happen when you get accepted to an elite college. Or when you graduate and get a job. Or maybe when you get that promotion. Or perhaps when you finally find a partner. Because you’re basing happiness on some future event, you keep delaying when you will really have a chance to be happy until you reach what’s around the next bend.
Too bad, because the thing is, you are living right now. And you’re in the Grand Canyon! All of that uphill hiking may be a challenge you suffer through until you reach the top. Or you might think about and take advantage of all the beautiful things you experience as you pant and sweat your way up the trail.
Rather than postponing joy until you reach some goal, only to recognize that the joy of reaching it is rather short-lived, you can focus on what there is to love about what you’re doing right now, today. Yes, there are things that we have to do and sacrifices that we need to make for the sake of some future goal. But if your life is little more than an unending string of tasks you are not enjoying for the sake of some hoped-for future, it is time to reevaluate the things you are doing each day and find something you can do today that will give you some enjoyment and fulfillment. There is an old bumper sticker that says, He who dies with the most toys wins (note the gender designation), but while the ones with the biggest piles of toys may win the race for accumulating the most toys, they won’t necessarily be happy. Plus, they’ll be dead.
It’s not surprising that people who enjoy the work they do and think of it as a calling are happier than those who experience lots of stress and anxiety at work without any greater sense of purpose. People who feel trapped by life circumstances, like a crummy job, understandably feel unhappy.
Bob sometimes meets with undergraduate advisees who have come to view school as little more than an endless source of stress and frustration, and he suggests that they drop out for a while—advice that’s met with a bit of shock, coming from a faculty advisor. Remember that these are privileged people who have lots of choices in life. Most of the students who hear this advice don’t actually leave school. But recognizing that they could drop out and that attending college is their choice helps them to rethink why they are there. They feel less trapped by the circumstance and more in control. In general, it’s valuable to remember that we often have more options than we recognize.
We’ll end this chapter about happiness emphasizing the importance of connecting with other people. Studies of happiness show that loneliness is a big negative predictor of happiness (which is a roundabout way of saying that lonely people are generally unhappy people). If you don’t feel connected to the people around you, you feel worse than when you feel a strong connection. This is true irrespective of whether you’re in a close romantic relationship.
Part of the problem, of course, is that unhappy people often don’t want to reach out to the people around them. So the correlation between loneliness and being unhappy is exacerbated by the fact that feeling unhappy leads people to be less sociable. But the number of people you spend time with is something you can control. If you feel lonely, you can call a friend or perhaps a family member. There are also lots of great ways to meet new people with similar interests without having to spend a dime. Community organizations, religious institutions, and various social causes offer lots of volunteer opportunities that connect us with other committed individuals.
It turns out that even random conversations can make you a bit happier. Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder have done some cool studies focusing on commuters. Most commuters on public transportation think that they will be happiest on their commute if they sit alone and work or read, and many live in mortal fear that a boring person will sit next to them and engage them in a long and pointless conversation.
Epley and Schroeder asked some people to engage in conversations with strangers as they commuted to work. Others were asked not to talk to other people. It turns out that commuters enjoyed the conversations and enjoyed their commutes more than did those who were asked to keep to themselves. It may be that many of us are missing lots of little opportunities to make each day a little more pleasant.
You see what we’re getting at here. A big chunk of our long-term happiness reflects our genetic predispositions, and there’s nothing to be done about that. But there are many things within our control that can lead to a more satisfying and happier life. This is not to ignore the fact that all of us face varying levels of challenges. It is easier for some of us to be happy than it is for others. But happiness is not entirely beyond our control, and by taking the opportunity to appreciate our surroundings and getting to know one another, we can potentially improve our overall life satisfaction. In sum: