By Ray Lesser
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful. – Albert Schweitzer
Those who can laugh without cause have either found the true meaning of happiness or have gone stark raving mad. – Norm Papernick
Everyone knows someone like my friend Keith. In Keith’s mind, everything’s coming up roses, even when he has to shovel two feet of snow out of his driveway by hand, because the plow guy’s truck broke down. “I could use the exercise,” says Keith. “And I can make a huge pile for the kids to play in!” Keith ‘s the guy who whistles while he works, smiles and waves at half the people in the hallway, and who loves to find the coffee pot in the break room empty. “After I make a new pot, I ‘ll get to drink the first cup. That ‘s always the best one!”
It turns out that, although he might drive curmudgeons crazy, Keith has found the secret of success. According to a research team from the University of California Riverside led by psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness, rather than hard work, is the key to success. “There is strong evidence that happiness leads people to be more sociable and more generous, more productive at work, to make more money, and to have stronger immune systems,” said Prof. Lyubomirsky.
Furthermore, happiness can extend across an entire nation, with people in “happy” countries being more likely to have pro-democratic attitudes. “People in happy nations trust others more and want to cooperate with their neighbors,” said Prof. Ed Diener, another member of the research team.
Prof. Lyubomirsky, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford, has devoted her career to studying human happiness. When she immigrated from Russia to the U.S. as a child she was amazed by Americans’ seeming obsession with happiness. While Russia was populated with pessimists and cynics, filled with dread as they looked toward their bleak futures, Americans spent their days looking for the newest ways to have some kicks. “Why are some people happier than others?” Prof. Lyubomirsky wanted to know. She found that unhappy people tend to dwell and ruminate on negative events. Such brooding tends to make them even more miserable. Meanwhile, people like my friend Keith tend to forget about negative events as quickly as possible, focusing instead on the next jelly donut, or e-mailed joke making the rounds. “Not only is the ‘unexamined life ‘ worth living,” says Prof. Lyubomirsky, “but it is potentially full of happiness and joy.”
Then she wanted to know, is happiness really a good thing? Or, does it simply feel good? But even a Ph.D. couldn’t find anything bad about feeling good. The benefits of happiness turned out to include higher income, more satisfying marriages, more friends, more energy, and even longer life. She also found that happy people are more creative, helpful, charitable, and self-confident, have better self-control and show greater coping abilities.
“Our work suggests that sad people should try to increase the frequency of positive emotions in their lives by doing things that make them feel happy, even temporarily,” said Prof. Lyubomirsky. Happiness is, literally, its own reward. Happiness breeds success, and that success, in turn, can create even greater happiness. “It’s an upward spiral,” Lyubomirsky asserts.
For most of its history, psychology has focused on one thing: Why are people so screwed up? Now researchers like Lyubomirsky are part of a new trend called positive psychology. “What makes a good life?” she asks, and “how can happiness be reliably increased?” She believes that greater happiness can be nurtured and even taught.
If that ‘s true, who better to teach it than someone like my friend Keith. So last week I visited his house to see if he could give me some pointers. “Doesn’t it depress you to realize that you’re getting older every day, Keith?”
“No, it just means I’m that much closer to retirement. Not that I have any intention of retiring. I love my job.”
“But, doesn’t it bother you that your hair is falling out?” I asked.
“Not really, it just means less to wash, and less to comb. Anyway, I read that in a few years they’ll be able to seed your head with little hair growing stem cells, so that it’ll all grow back thicker and shinier than it ever was.”
“What about problems like global warming?”
“Hey, I live in Cleveland. We haven’t had nearly enough global warming yet, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Aren ‘t you worried about the future of mankind?”
“Look, when I was a kid, the air was so bad from the steel factories downtown that we could hardly breathe. The Cuyahoga River was so polluted it caught fire, for gosh sakes. Now all that stuff is cleaned up. What’s the point in worrying? If you notice your roof is leaking, you don’t spend the day worrying about how moldy your living room is going to be in ten years. You get out your ladder, climb up there, and start trying to patch it up.”
“Keith, I notice that your arm is in a sling. What happened?”
“I slipped on my icy steps yesterday when I went out to get the morning paper.”
“And what was the first thing that went through your mind?”
“I thought, damn, I’m glad that I’m the one who fell down here. Because if it had happened to anyone else, they’d probably sue me.”
“You really are an optimist. You even laugh about breaking your arm.”
“That’s right, and I think that’s the key thing to learn. An optimist laughs to forget. A pessimist forgets to laugh.”