What You May Not Know — Soundbytes from The Myths of Happiness

(Note: Starred entries designate findings from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s lab)


Introduction: The Myths of Happiness

pp. 3-4  A little bit of adversity is better than none. People who have experienced several negative events are ultimately happier and less traumatized than those who have experienced no adversity at all. Apparently, some adversity “toughens” us up, such that we are better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas.

Chapter 1: I’ll Be Happy When…I’m Married to the Right Person

p. 15  The stress of divorce is equivalent to the stress of experiencing a car crash every day over 6 months.

pp. 27-28  Novelty in relationships is like a drug. Being exposed to variety and novelty appears to have similar affects on our brains – specifically, on activity involving the neurotransmitter dopamine – as do pharmacological “highs.”

p. 31  When your partner is giving you a rather good massage, you’ll enjoy it more if the experience is suddenly interrupted. Researchers have shown that people enjoy massages more when they are interrupted with a 20-minute break, enjoy television programs more when they are interrupted with commercials, and enjoy songs they like more when they are interrupted with a 20-second gap.

p. 37  When it comes to sex, it’s women not men who require more novelty. In a long-term relationship, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex and to lose it sooner. Women are physiologically aroused by a much broader range of stimuli than are men, and are most turned on by fantasies of sex with strangers. Also, female lust involves being dominated by a craving to be the object of powerful, urgent desire.

p. 46 Everyday physical contact is more acceptable and pervasive in Mediterranean cultures. For example, Greek and Italian couples use touch more when interacting together than English, French, and Dutch couples.

pp. 46-47  Much like a drug, physical contact gives us a “high.” Studies show that a simple touch can activate the reward regions of our brains, reduce the amount of stress hormones coursing through our bloodstreams, and diminish physical pain by reducing activation in the parts of the brain associated with stress.

Chapter 2:  I Can’t Be Happy When…My Relationship Has Fallen Apart

p. 58  Couples who are too positive about each other may harm their marriages. If our marriage is troubled, we need to monitor and acknowledge our problems – for example, when we’ve been neglectful or rejecting or mean – even when doing so makes us feel bad or dissatisfied for a time, so that we can address them.

pp. 59-60  Couples who talk alike stay together longer. Pairs of first-time daters who matched each other’s language styles were more likely to want to date again, and college couples who matched each other’s language styles were more likely to still be together three months later. Even the relationships of famous couples like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were happiest when their letters showed the highest match in language styles and least happy when they showed the lowest match.

p. 63  Friendship leads us to perceive mountains as less steep. Researchers asked volunteers to meet them at the base of a hill and asked that they either come alone or with a friend. Those who were accompanied by a friend – especially a friend they were close to and knew a long time – judged the hill to be less steep than those who were alone.

pp. 78-79  Does divorce harm children? Yes and no. Divorce definitely has some harmful effects on children, but these effects are often small and don’t apply to every family. For example, studies have found that 75% of children whose parents divorce suffer no long-term impediments, and that the effects of divorce on conduct problems, academics, and happiness are smaller than the effects of gender.

p. 79  Our own marriage is twice as likely to end in divorce if our parents had divorced, and our health is jeopardized.

pp. 79-80  It’s worse for children to continue to reside with parents who are quarreling and miserable than to undergo the consequences of their parents’ divorce. In a home full of pain, quarreling, or coldness, children are chronically stressed and on guard. In one study, children with lots of fighting in the home were relatively more likely to act out, to be anxious or depressed, and to have troubled relationships with friends and classmates, but whether their parents were married or divorced had no impact on their problems. So, it’s the conflict that matters, not the divorce.

p. 80  A troubled marriage presents as big a risk factor for heart disease as a regular smoking habit. For example, in the middle of a hostile fight, the functioning of our immune system begins to decline, our physical injuries heal slower, and our coronary calcium levels (signaling heart disease risk) rise.

Chapter 3:  I’ll Be Happy When…I Have Kids

***p. 85  Which types of parents are unhappy? Children are sources of joy and meaning for many parents, but if being a parent has not made you any happier, you are likely female, young, unmarried, and/or not working outside the home.

p. 85  Marital satisfaction decreases after the first baby is born and soars after the last child leaves home.

***pp. 86-87  But parents experience more meaning. My colleagues and I found that parents reported more meaning and purpose in life when spending time with their children than during the rest of their days.

p. 87  Is the saying true that “A mother can never be happier than her least happy child”? Yes. Psychologists have shown heartache from one child easily overwhelms pride over another.

p. 91  We dislike someone longer who hurt us a little than someone who hurt us a lot.

p. 98  How many more hours per week do stay-at-home moms spend with their children relative to working moms?  Only ten.

Chapter 4:  I Can’t Be Happy When…I Don’t Have a Partner

pp. 102-103  Married people report being more satisfied with their lives, but they do not experience more happiness moment to moment. For example, in a study that tracked how they occupy their time during every hour of the day, married women spent less time alone and more time having sex, but they also spent less time with friends, less time reading or watching TV, and more time doing chores, preparing food, and tending to children.

p. 104  Single people are better at friendships.  Relative to their married or once-married peers, single people tend to be closer with their siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews; they continue to develop new friendships as they age; and they stay in better touch with friends.

Chapter 5:  I’ll Be Happy When…I Find the Right Job

p. 117  After a job promotion, workers experience a honeymoon period and then revert back to their previous level of satisfaction. A longitudinal study showed that high-level managers experienced a burst of satisfaction immediately after a voluntary job change, but their satisfaction plummeted within a year, returning to their original pre-move level.

p. 120  People who are more highly educated are less satisfied with their lives. The enhanced life satisfaction that we might derive from our advanced degrees appears to be outweighed by our increased aspirations and their attendant risk of disappointment and regret.

p. 127  We experience an “ultradian dip” every 90 minutes. Ultradian dips are 20-minute periods of fatigue, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating.

***pp. 133-134  Unhappy people’s moods and self-perceptions are governed more by how others perform than by how they themselves perform. In one of my studies, the unhappiest participants reported feeling happier and more secure when they had received a poor evaluation (but heard that their peer did even worse) than when they had received an excellent evaluation (but heard that their peer did even better).

Chapter 6:  I Can’t Be Happy When…I’m Broke

p. 146  Money does make us happier (at least a little), but it does not lift our day-to-day emotions. When people are asked to consider how happy they are in general, those with more money report being happier. But when they are asked how “joyful, stressed, angry, affectionate, and sad” they were yesterday, then those with more money are hardly more likely to have experienced happy feelings.

p. 151  It’s much better to be house-rich than house-poor. Living in a bigger, fancier home gives us pleasure, but this pleasure diminishes over time and is greatly outweighed by the stress of making mortgage payments and comparing ourselves to our richer neighbors.

p. 158  Homeowners are less happy than renters.  Contrary to popular beliefs about the “American dream,” researchers have found that homeowners are less happy than renters, derive more pain from their homes, and spend more time on housework and less time interacting with their friends and neighbors.

Chapter 7:  I’ll Be Happy When…I’m Rich

pp. 168-169  Two-thirds of the benefits of a raise in income are erased after just one year. This occurs in part because we suddenly have “new” needs, spend more, and begin to associate with people in a higher income bracket.

p. 174  Wealthier people are stingier. The wealthier the individual, the smaller percentage of his or her income goes to charity, with American families making over $300,000 a year donating a mere 4 percent of their incomes and billionaires donating even less.

p. 177  Do the top 1% work more? In the U. S., the more wealth people have, the greater number of hours they work. In Europe, the reverse is true.

p. 178  Participants who imagined having an opportunity to kiss their favorite movie star opted to wait three days to experience the kiss rather than three hours.  Apparently, people value anticipation almost as much as the experience being anticipated.

Chapter 8:  I Can’t Be Happy When…The Test Results Were Positive

p. 189  Husbands and wives appear to live in totally different worlds. A study asked both members of a couple to check off what activities and events (e.g., sex, fights, outings, movies, kid problems) had taken place in their lives during the previous week. Amazingly, the husbands and wives completely failed to agree with one another.

pp. 191-192  Natural environments help us concentrate. People who spent 15 minutes strolling in a natural setting experienced more pleasure, and were better able to resolve a “loose end” in their lives, than people who strolled in an urban setting or those who watched videos of natural settings.

pp. 205-206  Having people in our lives we can rely on is as important a protective factor from chronic disease or death as are smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. Women and men who have good social support live 2.8 and 2.3 years longer than those who don’t, and social support slows down the beginning of dementia, protects us from catching colds, and improves our prognosis after a diagnosis of heart disease or cancer.

Chapter 9:  I Can’t Be Happy When…I Know I’ll Never Play Shortstop For the Yankees

p. 213  How many people have deep regrets?  90% of us.

pp. 221  Considering the “what ifs” and “might have beens” of important life events leads us to conclude that such events were fated, meaningful, or meant to be. In a series of studies, participants who were asked to mentally undo the fact that they got into the college of their choice, that they had never met a particular close friend, or that a certain critical turning point had not occurred ended up imbuing their college choices, friendships, and turning points with greater meaning.

p. 223  People typically regret more the things they haven’t done than the things they’ve done.

Chapter 10:  I Can’t Be Happy When…The Best Years Of My Life Are Over

pp. 234-235  Vacationers describe their highly-anticipated trips as a lot more idyllic than they were. A phenomenon called “rosy recollection” suggests that we tend to recall past events and periods of our lives more fondly and positively than they really were.

***p. 237  Happy people make a point of noting how much better the present is than the past, while unhappy people do the opposite. My colleagues and I found that both Americans and Israelis who consider themselves generally happy are more inclined to contrast their here-and-now with particularly negative experiences from their pasts (e.g., “My life is so much better now”), whereas chronically unhappy ones tend to contrast the present with positive past life events (e.g., “Life used to be more exciting”).

***pp. 239-240  We should replay our past positive experiences, but systematically analyze our negative past experiences. Studies from my laboratory suggest that we should strive to savor (and not dissect) our happy times, and we should strive to understand (and not replay) our unhappy times.

p. 244  Youth and emerging adulthood is the unhappiest time of life. Older people are happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people. They experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones, and their emotional experience is more stable and less sensitive to the vicissitudes of daily stress.

p. 245  Older people’s memories are more positively-biased.  The older we are, the more likely we are to focus on and remember the positives (and overlook the negatives) of our neighborhoods, our relationships, our life histories, and even random bits of information.