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The M.D.

In search of lasting happiness

We're genetically predisposed to certain moods, but we can help ourselves too. Hint: There's a difference between mere pleasure and substantive gratification.

January 31, 2011|By Valerie Ulene, Special to the Los Angeles Times

As last year drew to a close, I found myself struggling with whether I'd draft resolutions for 2011. For years I've made commitments to exercise regularly, spend less and learn a second language, only to abandon them within the first few weeks of January.

In spite of my poor track record, resolutions are difficult for me to resist. I guess I find something inherently hopeful about them, and failing to make them seems a bit like giving up. They are, in my mind, a road map to a more fulfilling and happier life.

Not surprisingly, finding happiness is more complicated than that. In fact, until quite recently, many mental health professionals viewed the pursuit of happiness as pure folly. Most concentrated their energy and attention on individuals suffering from diseases like depression and anxiety, on relieving despair rather than promoting well-being.

That's all beginning to change. Proponents of "positive psychology" think that happiness is a goal that people can — and should — work toward. They believe that it's not only possible but crucially important.

"Health means not just the absence of disease but a positive sense of involvement and engagement in life," says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University. "Unless you know how to enjoy life, your life is not really healthy."

This doesn't mean that finding happiness is easy — a variety of obstacles stands in the way. The first, perhaps the biggest, is genetics.

Happiness, it seems, is dictated — at least in part — by personality traits that are largely heritable. In a study published in 2008, researchers at the University of Edinburgh examined personality and happiness data on more than 900 pairs of twins. They found a close genetic relationship between happiness and positive personality traits such as extroversion, openness and agreeableness. Sets of identical twins were more likely to share these positive traits than non-identical twins; they were also more likely to report similar levels of well-being.

Of course, it doesn't take a wealth of scientific research to recognize that some people are naturally more effervescent than others. People appear to have a happiness set-point over which they have little control. That's not to say that everyone doesn't experience ups and down — they do. But, given time, most people gravitate back to their baseline.

Major life events as well as social and economic factors can also stand in the way of happiness. Even the happiest and most resilient of individuals struggle emotionally when they lose their job or discover that their spouse is cheating on them. And though their mood generally rebounds, some life experiences — such as the death of a spouse or child — can be truly devastating.

More often than not, however, people get in their own way by looking for happiness in all the wrong places. They aren't particularly good at recognizing what will bring them lasting joy: Although money tops many people's wish lists, study after study has found that once basic needs are met, additional wealth doesn't add much to people's sense of well-being and contentment. Surveys of lottery winners are perhaps the most striking example of this. The euphoria that follows the big win typically fades after just a few months.

Experts in the field of positive psychology still believe it's possible for people to push their happiness baseline upward — not just temporarily but over the long haul. In his 2002 book, "Authentic Happiness," psychologist Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that day-to-day happiness is derived from two main sources: pleasures and gratifications.

Pleasures are rich sensory experiences that simply make us feel good — things like eating cake, sipping wine and having sex. While pleasures can be immensely satisfying, the enjoyment we derive from them tends to be fleeting.

Gratifications, on the other hand, are activities that we like to do and that also fully engage us. They're often challenging, requiring that we draw on personal skills and strengths to perform them. For some people, work is a source of gratification. Surgeons, for example, often become so engrossed in an operation that hours pass without them noticing the time. For others, it may be hobbies like gardening, sewing, tennis and stamp collecting. Engaging in gratifying activities affects the mood in a way that appears to be lasting.

Too often, people opt for pleasure over gratification because it's easier and the effects more immediate. Though these shortcuts may work for a while, there are ultimately consequences.

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