Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky says that when it comes to happiness, we often believe the myths about it — namely, that achieving goals like getting married, having kids, getting a good job, and earning a decent living, will make us happy forever.
But when they don’t, we often fall victim to feelings of failure, disappointment, or simply unhappiness.
Lyubomirsky, whose research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness has received multiple prizes and grants, has written two books on the subject. In her most recent book, “The Myths of Happiness,” she describes a couple of ways we can keep ourselves happier, longer.
Imagine your life without the things you have.
When we adapt, we feel dissatisfied and cease to appreciate what we have, whether that’s a loving partner, a great job, or financial security. Lyubomirsky calls this hedonic adaptation — becoming complacent with the things in our lives that used to make us feel good, because we’ve come to expect them and begin to take them for granted.
This is a normal part of life: The ‘honeymoon phase’ in a relationship wears off after a while. Our brand new car loses its newness as we continue to see it in the driveway day after day.
“Appreciation helps prevent us from getting too ‘spoiled,'” writes Lyubomirsky, “and experiencing envy” of what others have. True appreciation means feeling gratitude and savouring what you have.
One way to experience appreciation: Imagine subtracting something, or someone, from your life. What would it be like if you hadn’t met your partner, hadn’t gotten your job, didn’t have kids? By imagining the absence of these things, and how much they enhance the quality of our lives, we’re more likely to appreciate them and extend the happiness they bring us.
Create the opportunity for novelty.
The elusive “element of surprise” is crucial to sustaining happiness, says Lyubomirsky.
In relationships, for example, the beginning always holds surprises; as a relationship progresses and a couple gets to know each other better, things become routine, and they begin to wonder where those initial feelings of passion and exhilaration went. The same holds true for other aspects of our lives. A new job is exciting as you’re getting a handle on new responsibilities, meeting your coworkers, and being rewarded for doing well, until it feels dull and habitual.
“When we perceive something novel in our environments,” Lyubomirsky says, “we stand to attention and hence are more likely to appreciate it, to contemplate it, and remember it.”
“Furthermore,” she continues, “uncertainty in and of itself can enhance the pleasure of positive events.”
We’re hardwired to seek out novelty — it signals learning and memory, and even triggers a chemical reaction in the brain. We should aim to create the opportunity for more novelty in our lives, whether that’s signing up for a cooking or dancing class with our partners, taking on more challenging projects at work, or redecorating the house. The key is to make the old feel new again, because new is stimulating.