10 Questions: How Can We Be Happy?

The Nobel Prize winning doctor and philosopher Albert Schweitzer once said "happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."

Somehow I think there's a bit more to it than that.

(Marilynn Oliphant)
Everyday--in our own ways--we all seem on a quest to lead happier lives. But what does happiness mean? How much happiness is enough? Is happiness the ultimate goal? For answers to these questions--and more--we turned to Dr. Daniel Gilbert, the award-winning Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, which was recently released in paperback.
1. Claremont University in California is establishing the first doctoral program focused on what makes people happy. And last year's annual positive-psychology summit in Washington attracted hundreds of academics working in the field or interested in doing so. Why do you think there has been such growing interest in this area, at this point?

People have always experienced unhappiness and they've always known why: They weren't getting what they wanted. Now, for the very first time in human history, a sizeable portion of the people on our planet have just about everything a person could ask for—food, shelter, security, and so on. And guess what? They're not all walking around with goofy grins. I suspect that the recent surge of scientific interest in the topic of happiness is due (at least in part) to the fact that in the land of plenty, plenty of people are unhappy and want to know why.

2. As one of the world's foremost experts on this topic, can you tell us whether certain people are wired for happiness? Why do some people have positive outlooks and good dispositions while others are dour and glass-half-empty types?

There is a "genetic component" to just about every human tendency and happiness is no exception. Some of us are endowed with sunnier dispositions than others and we have our parents to thank (or blame). But genes don't determine exactly how happy you will be; they determine the range within which your happiness will lie. It's just like height. Your genes may determine that you will be in the 5½ to 6½ foot range, but your diet determines whether you end up being 5'6" or 6'3".

3. I have always heard that gratitude and service to others are basic components to happiness. How important are these things?

It is hard to say just how important these things are in an absolute sense, but we do know that they are more important than most people realize. For example, in our research we've found that people overestimate the pleasure of selfish choices (e.g., winning a prize) and underestimate the pleasure of altruistic choices (donating the prize to a good cause). Many psychologists and biologists now believe that the desire to help others is hardwired into our species. Eighteen month old children will spontaneously help someone who is trying to retrieve a pencil or balance some books, and they will comfort someone who appears to be in distress. If helping is a basic impulse, then it makes sense that people feel happy when it (like all basic impulses) is gratified.

4. Is there a danger in wanting to be happy all the time? Are we overly anxious about it—and is it contributing to the high divorce rate and an inability to ride out the hard times?

There is a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, or pain: The word is extinct. Our brains are designed to monitor the environment and shift us from happiness to unhappiness as the state of the environment changes. We are supposed to feel worried about our kids and jealous about our spouses. Emotion is a compass that tells us whether we are heading in the right or wrong direction, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on NORTH is worthless. Because happiness is a noun we mistakenly think it is something we can acquire and keep. People think that if they aren't happy all the time then they are doing something wrong. The only thing they are doing wrong is having unrealistic expectations about happiness.

5. How do you measure happiness? And how do we know if we're happy enough?

Although we can't measure happiness with great precision, we can measure it well enough to do scientific studies that teach us a lot. The common claim that you can't measure a feeling is just plain wrong. You do it every time you ask your partner "How do you like it when I do this?" Scientists have slightly more sophisticated techniques, of course, but the essence of the enterprise is the same. People generally know how happy they are at the moment they are asked, and if you ask them, they will usually tell you. If you can quantify their answers (and we can), you can investigate happiness scientifically (and we do).

How do we know if we're happy enough? When you aren't asking that question.

6. To what extent can happiness be learned?

There is no doubt that people can take steps to increase their happiness. The question is: By how much and for how long? The jury is still out on these questions. But one of the most surprising and well-replicated findings in happiness research is that changes in life circumstance produce only very small and short-lived changes in happiness. We think that winning the lottery, getting promoted, and buying a bigger house will make us happier—and they do. For about ten seconds. And then we go back to being about as happy as we were before.

7. What has surprised you the most in all this new research on happiness?

Like most scientists, I have been surprised by the power of human resilience. Psychologists tend to think of people as fragile flowers who need therapy whenever their shoelaces come untied. But data show that people can suffer almost any kind of trauma or tragedy and ultimately return to (or close to) their original levels of happiness—often with no professional help at all. We are a remarkably hearty species that specializes in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

8. What is the connection between love and happiness? Our jobs and happiness? Physical exercise and happiness?

All good. Check, check, check. But of the three, love matters most. The number and quality of human relationships is one the best predictors of a person's happiness. I sometimes ask people whether they'd rather lose their best friend or go blind, and most chose to lose their best friend. Research suggests this is probably the wrong answer. Blind people are just as happy as sighted people, but people without friends are miserable.

9. Abraham Lincoln, a famous depressive, once said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Is that it, in a nutshell?

Presidents have been saying silly things for a very long time. If people could just make up their minds to be happy then Lincoln wouldn't have been depressed, would he? Depression is an illness, not a decision.

With that said, people can easily do things to change their momentary happiness. Next time you are at Starbucks, pay for the person in back of you and see what happens.

10. What makes YOU happy? (Besides being interviewed for "Couric & Co.," of course…)

This interview has, of course, been the single happiest experience of my entire adult life. But setting that aside, I'd have to say that I am especially happy when my 4 year old granddaughter and I spread the tinker toys out on the living room floor and build a geebenfloober. Neither of us has any idea what a geebenfloober is, but it's really fun to say with a mouthful of pretzels.