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C'mon, get happy

The pursuit of happiness has always been a good idea. But now science, with research to back it up, can finally show us how to get there.

September 08, 2008|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

True or false:

___ I would be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds or moved to a new house.

___ Happiness is genetic. You can't change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.

___ Success brings happiness.

Answers: False, false and false.

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IF RECENT scientific research on happiness -- and there has been quite a bit -- has proved anything, it's that happiness is not a goal. It's a process. Although our tendency to be happy or not is partly inborn, it's also partly within our control. And, perhaps more surprising, happiness brings success, not the other way around. Though many people think happiness is elusive, scientists have actually pinned it down and know how to get it.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Book authors: An article on happiness in Monday's Health section, along with a list of books and a sidebar on a formula for obtaining a positive outlook, identified Dan Baker as the author of "What Happy Women Know." He is actually a co-author, along with Cathy Greenberg. Ina Yalof contributed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 15, 2008 Home Edition Health Part F Page 7 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Book authors: A Sept. 8 article on happiness, along with a list of books and a sidebar on a formula for obtaining a positive outlook, identified Dan Baker as the author of "What Happy Women Know." He is actually the co-author, along with Cathy Greenberg. Ina Yalof contributed.

For years, many in the field of psychology saw the science of happiness as an oxymoron. "We got no respect," says Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, who began studying happiness in 1981. "Critics said you couldn't study happiness because you couldn't measure it." In the mid-1990s, he and a few other researchers started to prove the naysayers wrong. As a result, Americans now have an abundance of consumer books, academic articles, journals and associations to help them find happiness.

"Many of us have material things and our basic needs met, so we are looking for what comes after that," says Diener, co-author with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, of the forthcoming "Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth." "Materialism isn't bad. It's only bad if we use it to replace other things in life like meaningful work, a good marriage, kids and friends. People are recognizing that those who make money more important than love have lower levels of life satisfaction."

In recent months, the following titles have hit bookstore shelves: "What Happy Women Know," "The Happiness Trap," "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want" and "Happiness for Two."

Christine Cardone, executive editor of psychology books for Wiley-Blackwell, whose titles include Diener's forthcoming book, points to 2000 as the tipping point: Happiness science began to mushroom and flood society with new, positive ways of thinking. That year, Martin Seligman, then-president of the American Psychological Assn., started the positive psychology movement, which focuses on what makes people mentally healthy. That concept got out to the media, spawning more interest and research. Meanwhile, neuroscientists were discovering better ways to measure what's going on in the brain.

"Popular interest in happiness is only one driver," says Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Positive Psychology Center there. "The books are coming out because the science is coming out." Academic publications have enjoyed a similar boon. Between 1980 and 1985, only 2,125 articles were published on happiness, compared with 10,553 on depression. From 2000 to 2005, the number of articles on happiness increased sixteenfold to 35,069, while articles on depression numbered 80,161. From 2006 to present, just over 2 1/2 years, a search found 27,335 articles on happiness, more than half the 53,092 found on depression.

The field of happiness also now has its own publications -- the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Happiness Studies -- and its own professional organization, which Diener started last year. The International Positive Psychology Assn. for academics and scholars already has 3,500 members.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside and author of "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want," believes that's because happiness is like the Holy Grail. "People around the world want it. If you ask people what they want for their children, they'll say for them to be happy. It's in our Declaration of Independence. It matters to and affects everyone."

Among the major findings of the last decade is that the pursuit of happiness is a worthy cause, Diener says. "Happiness doesn't just feel good. It's good for you and for society. Happy people are more successful, have better relationships, are healthier and live longer."

Seligman adds, "We've learned in 10 years that happy people are more productive at work, learn more in school, get promoted more, are more creative and are liked more."

And if that doesn't make you happy, here's more happy news: Around the world, happiness is on the rise.

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Beyond your genes

Great if you happen to be one of the people born happy, right? Not exactly. Another major finding is that about half of our tendency toward happiness is genetic, while the rest is controlled by the individual.

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