Happiness: So Simple, Yet So Complicated
“While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
Happiness, that eternal yet elusive goal of man, is indeed full of paradoxes as many writers have eloquently noted. In an increasingly crowded field of books on happiness and positive psychology where it is getting more and more difficult to say something original and meaningful, I feel the author has made a very worthwhile contribution. She considers some of the universal assumptions about happiness and explores, analyzes, and reframes them to show us how very naive, thoughtless, and just plain wrong is our thinking about what “makes us” happy.
These assumptions – the “Myths of Happiness” as her title defines them – include cliches almost all of us never pause to doubt, ideas such as the idea that we can’t be happy without a wonderful marriage, we can’t be happy unless we have children, we can’t be happy because we don’t have enough money, we can’t be happy because we’re not as young as we used to be, we can’t be happy if we have health problems, and a few other common beliefs. It turns out that people find a way to be happy in spite of unwanted life circumstances, and many people who are blessed by wealth and good fortune aren’t any happier that those who lack these fortunes.
The unifying theme in dealing with all of these happiness myths seems to be what psychologists call “cognitive flexibility” or “cognitive reframing”, that is, some mental flexibility, creativity, perseverance, and originality that allows people to discover all kinds of alternative paths to a rich, enjoyable, successful, and meaningful life even if we find ourselves without wealth, youth, perfect health, or a passionate romantic partner. Bottom line: Lyubomirsky convinced me that, even if we don’t get what we want in life, we can still achieve that elusive state of living variously known as contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, or happiness.
The author’s writing style is fast-paced, wryly funny, and unpretentious. And, her knowledge of the field is encyclopedic, with over 400 references to studies in human happiness, enjoyably explained, to support her deconstruction of the myths of happiness.
I think the measure of a good psychology book is one that really makes you think about your own life differently, and this one gave me several such moments. Nearly 30 years ago as a medical student I had to cancel a planned “externship” at the prestigious Yale University Hospital on very short notice in order to be available to support my then girlfriend through a family loss. Having invested years of sweat and toil in my career and revering the Ivy League as the pinnacle of success, I went into a state of mini-despair as I reluctantly signed up for a mundane, “regular” assignment closer to home. I imagined my entire future success as a medical doctor had just taken a permanent turn for the worse. As it turned out, I was teamed up with an awesome team of residents and attending physicians, learned so much that I still use the knowledge acquired in that un-glamorous assignment in the management of patients, and years later was, nonetheless, still offered a prestigious fellowship at Yale. What’s more, I turned it down, having by then a much better idea of the kinds of things that actually would make me happy. This memory is a pefect example of the author’s main idea, expressed in the book’s subtitle: “what should make you happy but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy but does.” Ultimately, I think nothing extrinsic “makes us” happy, but rather that we must decide internally to experience life as an interesting, challenging, exciting adventure, and with that inner resolve, we will find opportunities to experience a range of emotions and experiences ultimately amounting to a meaningful and happy life.