The Science of Happiness

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

Why are some people happier than others? Can extrinsic goals, like money or status, lead to long lasting happiness? Do you believe people are born with a set predisposition toward happiness? Can you, or your client, learn to be happy? In the vein of ancient traditions, like Buddhism, which was founded on the notion that true happiness goes beyond the vulnerability of changing conditions, the recent explosion of books, articles, and magazines on happiness attempts to better understand the nature of happiness.

On Psychotherapy, Counseling and Happiness

Psychotherapy, obviously, often places happiness as its goal for clients. While some theories, such as Positive Psychology studied happiness more directly, one can argue that all theoretical orientations, from psychoanalysis to CBT to Humanistic Psychology have focused on ways of not only reducing suffering but also of increasing happiness. Jungian Psychology and Existential Psychology have approached the notion of happiness in a different way by exploring self and shadow or the inherent meaning of suffering, respectively. A more recent focus of inquiry has been on Aging and Positive Psychology. See also Dr. Zur’s views on Health and Happiness and on how Embracing Death is Tied to Living Fully (and happily).

When reflecting on happiness, two key ideas might be helpful for us and our clients:

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Goals
Extrinsic goals focus on influences outside the person like financial success and status, while intrinsic goals focus on things like emotional intimacy and self-knowledge. Most scholars agree that those who make intrinsic goals their primary concern experience higher levels of happiness and self-actualization, and more satisfaction as well as less anxiety and depression, and overall less health problems. 

Practicing Intentional Activities
A key study included in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, “The How of Happiness,” identified three striking elements that influence and determine happiness levels: genetically set point (50%), life circumstances (10%) and a factor that does lie within our locus of control: intentional activity (40%). While scholars debate about the exact percentage attributed to each of these three elements, there is a consensus that happiness can be developed and learned. You, and your client, could approach the experience of happiness as a matter of practice and a learned skill rather than as a predetermined and fixed factor in your lives. Practicing intentional activities to increase our sense of happiness can take many forms, including: 

  • Practice taking time to savor experiences 
  • Practice focusing on your strengths 
  • Practice giving to others and doing random acts of kindness  
  • Practice feeling and expressing gratitude 
  • Practice investing in experiences vs. stuff 
  • Practice engaging life with a sense of wonder and curiosity 

Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Giving to Others

An important argument by Happiness researchers involves what is known as the hedonic treadmill or the hedonic adaptation referring to a person’s tendency to adapt to repeated getting. Despite a person’s increased fortune, for example, new expectations and new desires will rise along with it, resulting in no lasting gain of their sense of happiness. But do we adapt in the same way to giving to others? A 2018 study by Samantha Kassirer claims that levels of happiness we experience from giving to others appears to sustain itself in the long run. In other words, participants in the study showed that “giving did not grow old”. Perhaps there is something deeply programmed in us, human beings, to motivate us to give: our profound need to love, to be loved and to belong.

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