What Men Need To Live A Happy Life

What Men Need To Live A Happy Life

75 Years In The Making: Harvard Just Released Its Epic Study On What Men Need To Live A Happy Life

In 1938 Harvard University began following 268 male undergraduate students and kicked off the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development in history. The study’s goal was to determine as best as possible what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing. The astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits — ranging from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum” — indicates just how exhaustive and quantifiable the research data has become. Recently, George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published the study’s findings in the 2012 book Triumphs of Experience (Amazon) and the following is the book’s synopsis:

“At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before. Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic ‘Adaptation to Life’ reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement. Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), ‘Triumphs of Experience’ shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup.”

As you can imagine, the study’s discoveries are bountiful, but the most significant finding of all is that “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.” In fact, alcoholism is the single strongest cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives. Alcoholism was also found to be strongly coupled with neurosis and depression (which most often follows alcohol abuse, rather than preceding it). Together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism proves to be the #1 greatest cause of morbidity and death. And above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t prevent the damage.

With regards to income, there was no noticeable difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110-115 range vs. men with IQs above 150. With regards to sex lives, one of the most fascinating discoveries is that aging liberals have way more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, but the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s. Vaillant writes, “I have consulted urologists about this, they have no idea why it might be so.”

In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant raises a number of factors more often than others, but the one he refers to most often is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in your later years. In 2009, Vaillant’s insistance on the importance of this part of the data was challenged, so Vaillant returned to the data to be sure the finding merited such important focus. Not only did Vaillant discover that his focus on warm relationships was warranted, he placed even more importance on this factor than he had previously. Vallant notes that the 58 men who scored highest on the measurements of “warm relationships” (WR) earned an average of $141,000 a year more during their peak salaries (between ages 55-60) than the 31 men who scored the lowest in WR. The high WR scorers were also 3-times more likely to have professional success worthy of inclusion in Who’s Who.

One of the most intriguing discoveries of the Grant Study was how significant men’s relationships with their mothers are in determining their well-being in life. For instance, Business Insider writes: “Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers took home $87,000 more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring. Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old. Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers — but not their fathers — were associated with effectiveness at work. On the other hand, warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment on vacations, and increased ‘life satisfaction’ at age 75 — whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”

In Vallant’s own words, the #1 most important finding from the Grant Study is this: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: HAPPINESS IS LOVE. Full stop.”
Source: Psychological studies (2013).

Read more
How to build a happier brain.

How to build a happier brain.

How to Build a Happier Brain
(Article source: Julie Beck- theatlantic.com)

There is a motif, in fiction and in life, of people having wonderful things happen to them, but still ending up unhappy. We can adapt to anything, it seems—you can get your dream job, marry a wonderful human, finally get 1 million dollars or Twitter followers—eventually we acclimate and find new things to complain about.

If you want to look at it on a micro level, take an average day. You go to work; make some money; eat some food; interact with friends, family or co-workers; go home; and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake a feeling of stress, or worry, or inadequacy, or loneliness.

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives. True, life can be hard, and legitimately terrible sometimes. Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.

I spoke with Hanson about this practice, which he calls “taking in the good,” and how evolution optimized our brains for survival, but not necessarily happiness.

“Taking in the good” is the central idea of your book. Can you explain what that is as a practice and how it works in the brain?

The simple idea is that we we all want to have good things inside ourselves: happiness, resilience, love, confidence, and so forth. The question is, how do we actually grow those, in terms of the brain? It’s really important to have positive experiences of these things that we want to grow, and then really help them sink in, because if we don’t help them sink in, they don’t become neural structure very effectively. So what my book’s about is taking the extra 10, 20, 30 seconds to enable everyday experiences to convert to neural structure so that increasingly, you have these strengths with you wherever you go.

Do you want to explain how that actually works in terms of brain structure? What is the connection between having this good experience and making tangible changes in the brain?

There’s a classic saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What that means is that repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure. This process occurs through a lot of different mechanisms, including sensitizing existing synapses and building new synapses, as well as bringing more blood to busy regions. The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.

On page one of the intro you said: “Positive thinking … is usually wasted on the brain.” Can you explain how positive thinking is different from taking in the good?

That’s a central, central question. First, positive thinking by definition is conceptual and generally verbal. And most conceptual or verbal material doesn’t have a lot of impact on how we actually feel or function over the course of the day. I know a lot of people who have this kind of positive, look on the bright side yappity yap, but deep down they’re very frightened, angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, or lonely. It hasn’t sunk in. Think of all the people who tell you why the world is a good place, but they’re still jerks.

I think positive thinking’s helpful, but in my view, it’s not so much as positive thinking as clear thinking. I think it’s important to be able to see the whole picture, the whole mosaic of reality. Both the tiles that are negative, as well as the tiles that are neutral and positive. Unfortunately, we have brains that are incentivized toward seeing the negative tiles, so if anything, deliberately looking for the positive tiles just kind of levels the playing field. But deep down, I’m a little leery of the term positive thinking because I think it could imply that we’re overlooking the negative, and I think it’s important to face the negative.

The second reason why I think most positive thinking is wasted on the brain goes to this fundamental distinction between activation and installation. When people are having positive thinking or even most positive experiences, the person is not taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into neural structure. So it’s not just positive thinking that’s wasted on the brain; it’s most positive experiences that are wasted on the brain.

Why did our brains evolve to focus on the negative?

As our ancestors evolved, they needed to pass on their genes. And day-to-day threats like predators or natural hazards had more urgency and impact for survival. On the other hand, positive experiences like food, shelter, or mating opportunities, those are good, but if you fail to have one of those good experiences today, as an animal, you would have a chance at one tomorrow. But if that animal or early human failed to avoid that predator today, they could literally die as a result.

That’s why the brain today has what scientists call a negativity bias. I describe it as like Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good. For example, negative information about someone is more memorable than positive information, which is why negative ads dominate politics. In relationships, studies show that a good, strong relationship needs at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

Positive experiences use standard memory systems: moving from short-term buffers to long-term storage. But to move from a short-term buffer to long-term storage, an experience needs to be held in that short-term buffer long enough for it to transfer to long-term storage—but how often do we actually do that? We might be having one passing, normal, everyday positive experience after another: getting something done, look outside and flowers are blooming, children are laughing, chocolate tastes great, but these experiences are not transferring to storage or leading to any lasting value.

When you’re trying to avoid these threats, that’s what you call, in the book, “reactive mode” for the brain. But even though we’re wired to dwell on negative things, you still say the default state is still the relaxed or “responsive mode,” right?

Let’s take the example of zebras, borrowing from Robert Sapolsky’s great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras in the wild spend most of their time in a state of relative well-being. Sometimes they’re hungry, but often they’re in a fairly relaxed place; they’re eating grass, they’re with each other in the herd. They’re in the responsive mode of the brain, what I call the green zone. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of lions attack. All the zebras go into to the reactive mode, they have this burst of fight-or-flight stress, they go into the red zone, and then this episode of stress, as Sapolsky writes, ends quickly one way or another. And then they go back to the responsive mode.

So, Mother Nature’s plan is for us to spend long periods in the responsive mode. And it’s good for animals to seek to rest in the responsive mode, which is when the body repairs itself. But we have also evolved the capacity to switch out of the responsive mode very, very quickly, for a fight or flight or freeze purpose. And then we need to learn intensely what happened, to try to avoid going there ever again. So the resting state is actually very good for humans, for our long-term physical and mental health. On the other hand, it’s very important for us to learn from our negative experiences to try to prevent them in the future.

You write that people are more likely to get stuck in the reactive mode today, but if modernity takes care of most of our basic needs, why are we more likely to be in the reactive mode today than, say, in the wild?

It’s a deep question. I think it’s easy to sentimentalize hunter-gatherer life. There was a lot about it that was very hard: there was no pain control, there was no refrigeration, there was no rule of law. Childbirth was a dangerous experience for many people. There’s a lot about modernity that’s good for the Stone Age brain. We do have the ability in the developed world—far from perfect, of course—to control pain. We have modern medicine, sanitation, flushed toilets and so forth and, in many places, the rule of law. But on the other hand, modernity exposes us to chronic mild to moderate stresses, which are not good for long-term mental or physical health.

For me, one of the takeaways from that is to repeatedly internalize the sense of having our three core needs met: safety, satisfaction, and connection. By repeatedly internalizing that self-sense, we essentially grow the neural substrates of experiencing that those needs are met, even as we deal with challenges, so that we become increasingly able to manage threats or losses or rejections without tipping into the red zone.

Could you talk a little more about those core needs—safety, satisfaction, and connection, and how to meet them?

There are certain kinds of key experiences that address key issues. For example, experiences of relaxation, of calming, of feeling protected and strong and resourced, those directly address issues of our safety system. And having internalized again and again a sense of calm, a person is going to be more able to face situations at work or in life in general without getting so rattled by them, without being locked into the reactive mode of the brain.

In terms of our need for satisfaction, of experiences of gratitude, gladness, accomplishment, feeling successful, feeling that there’s a fullness in your life rather than an emptiness or a scarcity. As people increasingly install those traits, they’re going to be more able to deal with issues such as loss, or being thwarted, or being disappointed.

Lastly, in terms of our need for connection, the more that people can have a sense of inclusion or a sense of being seen, or appreciated, or liked or loved; the more that people can cultivate the traits of being compassionate, kind, and loving themselves, the more that they’re going to be able to stay in a responsive mode of the brain, even if they deal with issues in this connection system like being rejected or devalued or left out by somebody else.

Do people differ in the sort of mode that they tend to be in, reactive or responsive, based on their personal history or personality?

The short answer, I’m sure, is yes. There’s a general finding in psychology that, on average, about a third of our personal characteristics are innate, and roughly two-thirds are acquired one way or another. And so, it’s true, I think, that some people are just by tendency more reactive, more sensitive, fiery. They come out of the box that way. On the other hand, anybody can gradually develop themselves over time through repeatedly internalizing positive experiences and also learning from negative ones. There’s been research on the development of resilience, as well as many anecdotal tales of people who were very reactive because they grew up in a reactive environment—a lot of poverty or chaos in their home or within the family—but then over time, become increasingly sturdy and even-keeled as they navigate the storms of life.

You said in the book that regular exercise can be a factor; can you explain how that helps?

It’s interesting, and I’m someone that doesn’t like exercise. Research shows that exercise is a very good physical health factor obviously, but it also confers mental health benefits. For example, regular exercise is roughly as powerful on average for mild depression as medication is, studies show.

The research that’s relevant is on learning, both cognitive learning and especially emotional learning.
People who are depressed, mildly to moderately depressed, are still having positive experiences, but they’re not changing from them; they’re not learning from them. One of the theories about why exercise seems to have such a powerful effect on depression in terms of lifting the mood, is that exercise promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved with learning—both learning from specific life experiences, as well as learning how to put things into context, see things in the bigger picture. It’s possible that as exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, people become more able to cope with life and make use of positive experiences.

Taking in the good seemed like something you started to do on your own in college, and then later you found that research supported the practice, is that right?

A lot of people stumble upon something that works for them, and then later on they find out there’s a lot of research that’s related to it. For me, the research that’s relevant is on learning, both cognitive learning and especially emotional learning. How do people grow psychologically? The research on that shows that it’s a two-stage process of activation and installation. Also as a long-time clinician, I began to think about how relatively good we are as clinicians at activating positive mental states, but how bad we generally are at helping people actually install those activated states into neural structure. That was a real wake-up call for me, as a therapist.

You include a lot of testimonials, examples from people in the book. Is this something you do in your work with your patients?

Yeah, definitely. It’s changed the way I do therapy and more generally it’s changed the way I talk with people in life in general. Let me turn it around, to go back to your question about modernity. On the one hand, due to modernity, many people report that moment to moment, they’re having fairly positive experiences, they’re not being chased by lions, they’re not in a war zone, they’re not in agonizing pain, they have decent medical care. And yet on the other hand, many people today would report that they have a fundamental sense of feeling stressed and pressured and disconnected from other people, longing for closeness that they don’t have, frustrated, driven, etc. Why is that? I think one reason is that we’re simply wasting the positive experiences that we’re having, in part due to modernity, because we’re not taking into account that design bug in the Stone Age brain that it doesn’t learn very well.

For me, by repeatedly taking in the good to grow inner strength, you become much more able to deal with the bad. For me, taking in the good is motivated by the recognition that there’s a lot about life is hard.

Read more
A letter to my younger self.
, ,

A letter to my younger self.

Dear Jamie.
What a ride hey?!
Please know how special you are to me. Recently I have been too busy to check in with you to see what you really need going forward, I’m sorry. It seems that you’re still trying to make everyone around you happy and that you’re not taking enough care of yourself. If I can give you a bit of guidance my precious one… Please, look after yourself, do less, remember that what you need is important too! Dont forget to play, just for the sake of it. Try not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how much life may hurt. Remember to feed your wonder for the small things and to take time to explore the world around you. Things will change, if nothing else, you can count on that. Magic is real no matter what they tell you. Never hide your light. Gratitude is important because without that you will feel despair and it may overwhelm you.Protect your heart by nourishing what matters to you. Do nothing sometimes, because sometimes, there is nothing you can do. Know the difference between your truth and what others tell you to believe. Beware internalising the invalidation of others. Let go of critical and judgemental thoughts when they arise. Try and learn to accept some things as they are. Allow yourself to be exactly who you are. Set aside time for yourself. Cultivate healthy connected friendships. Nurture your compassion for others. Stay open and courageous because without your capacity to love in the face of adversity you will become small and tight. Remember your ability to survive because it will sustain you through dark times. Believe in people’s ability to evolve, especially your own. Know that pain is a great teacher and it will lead you to deeper truths. Meditate. Walk in the mountains, make eye contact with strangers,dance with wild abandon, be creative, eat food that makes you happy without worrying, risk being vulnerable with those that matter and remember to connect to joy whenever possible…because life is short.
And know that no matter what may happen, you are loved.

Read more
Reader submission- the good fight
, ,

Reader submission- the good fight

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” – Charles Bukowski

Read more
Things to pack for a dark night of the soul
, ,

Things to pack for a dark night of the soul

LIFE has turned to face me in full frontal, terrifying technicolor. At first I was petrified, paralyzed (strains of “I will survive-Gloria Gaynor” come wafting through my mind),I am being churned and burned to the bone. Clean, white bone.
A colleague of mine told me about Tibetan Buddhist monks who sit in charnel grounds with the dead, while the buzzards pick the bodies clean, meditating for days to remind them about the impermanence of life. I can relate to that as the old parts of my ego identity die, as I re-examine, update or discard elements of my outdated operating software.

Although I am still in a difficult space and am being continually flung back on my own resources, I have become aware that I am looking for comfort in familiar places that have always offered me safe refuge.

So tonight, in an effort to get out of my own way, I offer some of the aids I am using to get me through. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, merely a snapshot of what constellates to heal the heart wound at this moment.

My current anthem is Babel by Mumford and sons, the lyrics resonate and there is a prayer in there somewhere.
Islands: Essential Einaudi, particularly the Earth Prelude
A bit of Neil Young, Muse, Ben Howard, The Golden Path-chemical brothers, Vivaldi, various moody cello sonatas for when I really want to drop in and blister and some Jon Kabat Zinn guided mindfulness audiobooks to try and still the mind before sleep (didn’t work tonight though).

I avoid texts that are too heady when my emotions are up and rather aim for people who have mapped this terrain with their hearts. Anything by James Hollis, Tolle, Coehlo’s Warrior of Light, my weather beaten copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (to be opened at random pages for inspiration although I have my favorites) and obligatory pieces of fantastic escapist fiction which I reread (e.g. Julian May’s Intervention Saga and various Ian Mckewan novels) for when the going gets too heavy and I need to eject.

First Aid Kit:
Candles, dogs (fed and walked), a good bottle of Merlot, crackling fire, my numerous notebooks that I have written in over the years, so that I can track change and re formulate and re calibrate, head torch for wandering at some ungodly hour and an old alchemical tarot deck which I use to evoke the slumbering unconscious and drag it to the surface.

And last, but certainly not least, a fragment of hope that I have kept safely hidden in the very core of my being for just such an occasion.

What would you pack for a dark night of the soul?

Read more
Reader submission- anon
, ,

Reader submission- anon

Feeling acted upon and frail,
Minute examinations of each moment,
Never failing to find evidence (and excuses),
Race, class, age, height, voice – whatever’s at hand –
To explain why they all hate me

Is this the triumphant verse?
The one where I’m post-, post-, post-..?
The one where I’m happy and free?
The one with history carried lightly,
Only existing as edited earlier references,
In tales of victory?

The truth might be,
That my goals are now circumscribed,
That my vision grows myopic,
That narrowing of hope
Means narrowing of despair;


Read more
The anatomy of an ache.

The anatomy of an ache.

“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul”

Enduring the enlargement of consciousness is hard, bloody work. The  jagged journey begins with confusion, shifts into doubt, drops rapidly into fear, moves on to unbearable loneliness, before arriving at solitude where the real dialogue with Self can begin.

Who among us has not felt insufficient to meet the demands of Life and wished for some deliverance? Who has not watched the familiar slip away and felt thrown back on ones own meager resources?
In an effort to stand courageously, vulnerably and responsibly before the Universe, I am being challenged to grow up. To take on the journey with greater consciousness.

The call to evolve is terrifying.

Individuation by definition is the advancement of the Cosmos through the fullest possible development of the individual. To regress, to seek safety by clinging to the familiar, to abstain from the journey towards ones fuller self, is no longer possible, for it feels like soul-crime. When a deep truth emerges no matter how terrifying, it must be honored.

It is always tempting when the chasm of change yawns beneath one’s feet, to return to one’s addictions to soothe the way. All addictions are anxiety management systems whether that anxiety is conscious or not. Whether one reaches for a cigarette, a drink, a white powder, food or another person, the connection momentarily heals the primal wound we all carry. Loneliness is briefly replaced by fusion with an other. To move through enlargement, to face fear and sadness from one’s core takes courage and resourcefulness and sometimes, I gladly falter, only to return once again to the working surface.

We are continuously obliged to choose between anxiety and depression. If we are caught in regressive behavior, thereby sabotaging our individuation, we will suffer depression. If we overthrow our psychic lethargy and move out into the world, we will experience an increase of anxiety. Hardly a pretty choice, but it is a choice we make consciously or not, virtually every moment.

So here from the precipice of my old self, I see the repetitions, the old familiar wounds, the antiquated defenses and still I choose to move forward, because all these repeated experiences have but one aim…to teach me what I do not want to learn.

Read more
Tuesday’s thoughts…
, ,

Tuesday’s thoughts…

In an attempt to cultivate a profound sense of gratitude

“God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you?” ~ William Arthur Ward

“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.” ~ Alphonse Karr

“At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.” ~ Toni Morrison

“True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’” ~ Oprah Winfrey

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” ~ Maya Angelou

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

“My heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.” ~ George Saunders

“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” ~ Pema Chödrön

“The greatest wisdom is in simplicity. Love, respect, tolerance, sharing, gratitude, forgiveness. It’s not complex or elaborate. The real knowledge is free. It’s encoded in your DNA. All you need is within you. Great teachers have said that from the beginning. Find your heart, and you will find your way.” ~ Carlos Barrios, Mayan elder and Ajq’ij of the Eagle Clan

A Tuesday Poem

What if you slept?
And what if,
In your sleep
You dreamed?
And what if,
In your dream,
You went to heaven
And there plucked
A strange and
Beautiful flower?
And what if,
When you awoke,
You had the flower
In your hand?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“For true love is inexhaustible, the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant its flow”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

~ Anaïs Nin

Found written on the wall of a Sri Lankan monastery

Come with empty hands, go with empty mind.

Shrouded by darkness, would you not seek a light?

What you see reflects your thinking.

When attachment arises, contemplate impermanence, not the Self

Wherever you go, there you are.

And my favorite…

No way out but in.

Read more
When Life just won’t let you go…let go.

When Life just won’t let you go…let go.

Ever had a couple of those months where Life just wont let you go?

I am embedded on the front lines of a fierce firefight with Life. Explosions are coming unerringly closer, adrenalin is pumping through my system, I have responded decisively and courageously…and yet, behind the deafening narrative of my discursive, chattering mind, is peace and acceptance. It’s a hard place to drop into, but it’s there as I let go and trust that its all going to be as it should, no matter the outcome. Surrender is not defeat.

Read more
The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

What Happy People Do Differently.

One of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad.

The secret of happiness is a concern of growing importance in the modern era, as increased financial security has given many the time to focus on self-growth. No longer hunter-gatherers concerned with where to find the next kill, we worry instead about how to live our best lives. Happiness books have become a cottage industry; personal-development trainings are a bigger business than ever.

The pursuit of happiness is not a uniquely Western phenomenon either—in a study of more than 10,000 participants from 48 countries, psychologists Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia discovered that people from every corner of the globe rated happiness as being more important than other highly desirable personal outcomes, such as having meaning in life, becoming rich, and getting into heaven.

The fever for happiness is spurred on, in part, by a growing body of research suggesting that happiness does not just feel good but is good for you—it’s been linked to all sorts of benefits, from higher earnings and better immune-system functioning to increased creativity (although Van Gough may have disagreed).

Most people accept that true happiness is more than a jumble of intensely positive feelings—it’s probably better described as a sense of “peace” or “contentedness.” Regardless of how it’s defined, happiness is partly emotional—and therefore tethered to the truth that each individual’s feelings have a natural set point, like a thermostat, which genetic baggage and personality play a role in establishing. Yes, positive events give you a boost, but before long you swing back toward your natural set point.

True happiness lasts longer than a burst of dopamine, however, so it’s important to think of it as something more than just emotion. Your sense of happiness also includes cognitive reflections, such as when you give a mental thumbs-up or thumbs-down to your best friend’s sense of humor, the shape of your nose, or the quality of your marriage. Only a bit of this sense has to do with how you feel; the rest is the product of mental arithmetic, when you compute your expectations, your ideals, your acceptance of what you can’t change—and countless other factors. That is, happiness is a state of mind, and as such, can be intentional and strategic.

Regardless of your emotional set point, your everyday habits and choices—from the way you operate in a friendship to how you reflect on your life decisions—can push the needle on your well-being. Recent scholarship documenting the unique habits of those who are happiest in life even provides something of an instruction manual for emulating them. It turns out that activities that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of people’s lives. Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counterintuitive habits that seem, well, downright unhappy.

The Real Rewards Of Risk

When anxiety is an optimal state

It’s a Friday night and you’re planning on meeting friends for dinner. If you want to ensure that you’ll go home full, you grab pizza or burgers. If you instead pick a cuisine you’ve never tried before (Ethiopian—sure, why not?) you run the risk that you won’t like your injera and wat that much—but you might also uncover a surprising delight.

Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, are, simply put, curious. In a 2007 study, Todd Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their own daily activities, as well as how they felt, over the course of 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life—and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.

Yet curiosity—that pulsing, eager state of not knowing—is fundamentally an anxious state. When, for instance, psychologist Paul Silvia showed research participants a variety of paintings, calming images by Claude Monet and Claude Lorrain evoked happy feelings, whereas the mysterious, unsettling works by Egon Schiele and Francisco Goya evoked curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, is largely about exploration—often at the price of momentary happiness. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, a closer look at the study by Kashdan and Steger suggests that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard to higher psychological peaks.

Of course, there are plenty of instances in life where the best way to increase your satisfaction is to simply do what you know feels good, whether it’s putting your favorite song on the jukebox or making plans to see your best friend. But from time to time, it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain, or even upsetting—whether that means finally taking the leap and doing karaoke for the first time or hosting a screening of your college friend’s art-house film. The happiest people opt for both so that they can benefit, at various times, from each.

A Blind Eye To Life’s Vicissitudes

The benefit of seeing the forest but not the trees

A standard criticism of happy people is that they’re not realistic—they sail through life blissfully unaware of the world’s ills and problems. Satisfied people are less likely to be analytical and detail-oriented. A study led by University of New South Wales psychologist Joseph Forgas found that dispositionally happy people—those who have a general leaning toward the positive—are less skeptical than others. They tend to be uncritically open toward strangers and thus can be particularly gullible to lies and deceit. Think of the happy granny who is overcharged at the car dealership by the smiling salesperson compared with more discerning, slightly less upbeat consumers.

Certainly having an eye for the finer points can be helpful when navigating the complicated social world of colleagues, acquaintances, and dates—and it’s something the less sunny among us bring to bear. In fact, Virginia Commonwealth University psychologist Paul Andrews has argued that depression is actually adaptive. Depressed people, the logic goes, are more likely than others to reflect on and process their experiences—and thereby gain insight into themselves or the human condition—albeit at an emotional price. A little attention to detail helps with a more realistic evaluation of the social world.

Yet too much attention to detail can interfere with basic day-to-day functioning, as evidenced by research from Queen’s University psychologist Kate Harkness, who found that people in a depressed mood were more likely to notice minute changes in facial expressions. Meanwhile, happy people tend to overlook such second-to-second alterations—a flash of annoyance, a sarcastic grin. You probably recognize this phenomenon from interactions you’ve had with your partner. While in a bad mood we tend to notice the tiniest shifts and often can’t seem to disengage from a fight (“I saw you roll your eyes at me! Why did you do that!?!”), whereas when we’re in a good mood, we tend to brush off tiny sleights (“You tease me, but I know you love being around me”). The happiest people have a natural emotional protection against getting sucked in by the intense gravitational pull of little details.

Similarly, the happiest people possess a devil-may-care attitude about performance. In a review of the research literature by Oishi and his colleagues, the happiest people—those who scored a 9 or 10 out of 10 on measures of life satisfaction—tended to perform less well than moderately happy people in accomplishments such as grades, class attendance, or work salaries. In short, they were less conscientious about their performance; to them, sacrificing some degree of achievement seems to be a small price to pay for not having to sweat the small stuff.

This is not to say that we should take a laissez-faire attitude to all our responsibilities; paying attention to detail is helpful. But too much focus on minutiae can be exhausting and paralyzing. The happiest among us (cheerfully) accept that striving for perfection—and a perfectly smooth interaction with everyone at all times—is a loser’s bet.

The Unjealous Friend

We’re buoyed by others’ good fortune

You’ve heard it a million times: The definition of a good friend is one who’s there to lend a hand in times of need. In a recent Gallup World Poll, the biggest predictor of happiness at work was whether or not a person had a best friend they could call on for support. It makes sense, then, that we often assume that a good friend is the one who takes us out for beer and sympathy after we get passed up for a promotion—or that we’re being one when we pick up our buddy at the bar after his post-layoff binge leaves him too drunk to drive.

Indeed, such support softens the blow of difficult life circumstances by helping the sufferer move past them. Still, new research reveals a less intuitive idea about friendship: The happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others—and whose own wins are regularly celebrated by their friends as well.

Support for this idea comes from psychologist Shelly Gable, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleagues, whose research revealed that when romantic partners fail to make a big deal out of each other’s success, the couple is more likely to break up. On the flipside, when partners celebrate each other’s accomplishments, they’re more likely to be satisfied and committed to their relationship, enjoying greater love and happiness.

Outside of your primary relationship, however, why would capitalizing on others’ success make you happier? Why should you support your born-lucky buddy by listening to him detail yet another sexual conquest when you’re spending far too many Friday nights reading zombie comic books? For one thing, he really does need you. The process of discussing a positive experience with a responsive listener actually changes the memory of the event—so after telling you about it, your friend will remember that night with the model as even more positive than it was, and the encounter will be easier for him to recall a few years down the line when he’s been dumped. But equally important, you’ll get to “piggyback” on your friend’s positivity. Just as we feel happier when we spend money on gifts or charitable contributions rather than on ourselves, we feel happier after spending valuable time listening to the accomplishments of friends.

In life, it seems, there are an abundance of Florence Nightingales waiting to show their heroism. What’s precious and scarce are those people who can truly share in others’ joy and gains without envy. So while it might be kind to send flowers to your friend when she’s in the hospital for surgery, you’ll both derive more satisfaction out of the bouquet you send her when she finishes medical school or gets engaged.

A Time For Every Feeling

The upside of negative emotions

The most psychologically healthy people might inherently grasp the importance of letting some things roll off their backs, yet that doesn’t mean that they deny their own feelings or routinely sweep problems under the rug. Rather, they have an innate understanding that emotions serve as feedback—an internal radar system providing information about what’s happening (and about to happen) in our social world.

Happy, flourishing people don’t hide from negative emotions. They acknowledge that life is full of disappointments and confront them head on, often using feelings of anger effectively to stick up for themselves or those of guilt as motivation to change their own behavior. This nimble mental shifting between pleasure and pain, the ability to modify behavior to match a situation’s demands, is known as psychological flexibility.

For example, instead of letting quietly simmering jealousy over your girlfriend’s new buddy erode your satisfaction with your relationship, accept your feelings as a signal, which allows you to employ other strategies of reacting that are likely to offer greater dividends. These include compassion (recognizing that your girlfriend has unmet needs to be validated) and mindful listening (being curious about what interests her).

The ability to shift mental states as circumstances demand turns out to be a fundamental aspect of well-being. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found, for instance, that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most flexible people living in New York City during the attacks—those who were angry at times but could also conceal their emotions when necessary—bounced back more quickly and enjoyed greater psychological and physical health than their less adaptable counterparts.

Opportunities for flexible responding are everywhere: A newlywed who has just learned that she is infertile may hide her sense of hopelessness from her mother but come clean to her best friend; people who have experienced a trauma might express their anger around others who share similar sentiments but conceal it from friends who abide by an attitude of forgiveness. The ability to tolerate the discomfort that comes from switching mind-sets depending on whom we’re with and what we’re doing allows us to get optimal results in every situation.

Similar to training for a triathlon, learning the skill of emotional discomfort is a task best taken on in increasing increments. For example, instead of immediately distracting yourself with an episode of The Walking Dead or pouring yourself a whiskey the next time you have a heated disagreement with your teenage son, try simply tolerating the emotion for a few minutes. Over time, your ability to withstand day-to-day negative emotions will expand.

The Well-Being Balancing Act

Pleasure and purpose work together

Even the most ardent strivers will agree that a life of purpose that is devoid of pleasures is, frankly, no fun. Happy people know that allowing yourself to enjoy easy momentary indulgences that are personally rewarding—taking a long, leisurely bath, vegging out with your daughter’s copy of The Hunger Games, or occasionally skipping your Saturday workout in favor of catching the soccer match on TV—is a crucial aspect of living a satisfying life. Still, if you’re primarily focused on activities that feel good in the moment, you may miss out on the benefits of developing a clear purpose. Purpose is what drives us to take risks and make changes—even in the face of hardship and when sacrificing short-term happiness.

Working to uncover how happy people balance pleasure and purpose, Colorado State’s Steger and his colleagues have shown that the act of trying to comprehend and navigate our world generally causes us to deviate from happiness. After all, this mission is fraught with tension, uncertainty, complexity, short bursts of intrigue and excitement, and conflicts between the desire to feel good and the desire to make progress toward what we care about most. Yet overall, people who are the happiest tend to be superior at sacrificing short-term pleasures when there is a good opportunity to make progress toward what they aspire to become in life.

If you want to envision a happy person’s stance, imagine one foot rooted in the present with mindful appreciation of what one has—and the other foot reaching toward the future for yet-to-be-uncovered sources of meaning. Indeed, research by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has revealed that making advances toward achievement of our goals not only causes us to feel more engaged, it actually helps us tolerate any negative feelings that arise during the journey.

Nobody would pretend that finding purpose is easy or that it can be done in a simple exercise, but thinking about which activities you found most rewarding and meaningful in the past week, what you’re good at and often recognized for, what experiences you’d be unwilling to give up, and which ones you crave more time for can help. Also, notice whether your answers reflect something you feel that you ought to say as opposed to what you truly love. For example, being a parent doesn’t necessarily mean that spending time with your children is the most energizing, meaningful part of your life—and it’s important to accept that. Lying to yourself is one of the biggest barriers to creating purpose. The happiest people have a knack for being honest about what does and does not energize them—and in addition to building in time for sensory pleasures each day, they are able to integrate the activities they most care about into a life of purpose and satisfaction.

There’s More To Life Than Being Happy

Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer once quipped that “happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Despite the apparent luster of achieving a predominantly positive state of mind, critics argue that the pursuit of happiness is a misguided goal—it’s fleeting, superficial, and hedonistic.

Research backs up some of these claims. Studies by psychologist Ed Diener show that people actually pay an emotional price for intensely positive events because later ones—even moderately pleasant ones—seem less shiny by contrast. (Sure, getting a raise feels terrific, but it might mean you fail to fully appreciate your son’s performance in the school play that afternoon.)

Perhaps more damning is a series of studies led by University of California, Berkeley psychologist Iris Mauss, which revealed that people who place a premium on being happy report feeling more lonely. Yes, being happy might be healthy—but craving happiness is a slippery slope.

As well-being researchers, we don’t deny the importance of happiness—but we’ve also concluded that a well-lived life is more than just one in which you feel “up.” The good life is best construed as a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness, and psychological flexibility, as well autonomy, mastery, and belonging.

While some people will rank high in happiness and social belonging, others will find they’ve attained a sense of mastery and achievement. This approach appreciates that not only do people differ in their happiness matrices—but they can shift in their own respective matrices from moment to moment.

For instance, your sense of autonomy might spike dramatically when, as a college freshman, you shift from living under your parents’ rules to the freedom of dorm life—and then plummet a decade later when you become a parent and must sacrifice even the ability to choose your hours of sleep. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that coeds have greater well-being than new parents. Rather, each group is experiencing a unique flavor.

Parsing the good life into a matrix is more than linguistic trickery; shifting toward a mixed-bag view of well-being opens more paths to achieving a personally desirable life. Enjoying success in even one area of the matrix can be a cause for celebration.

And finally, Happiness By Numbers…


The percentage of our capacity for happiness that is within our power to change, according to University of California, Riverside researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky.


Number of residents out of every 100 who report feeling positive emotions in Panama and Paraguay, the most positive countries in the world.


The percentage of the U.S. population wealthy enough that their feelings of happiness are not affected by fluctuations in Americans’fiscal cycle.

Read more