Sunday, April 21, 2013

The queen of happiness

A profile of Sonia Lyubomirsky in the NYT (“Happiness Inc.”) quotes another psychologist referring to her as just that – the “queen of happiness.” She has a new book on the subject, in which she argues that we all have a “set point” of happiness – a level to which we tend to return after pleasant or unpleasant experiences as we become habituated to these. So she is a bit skeptical of the longer-term happiness-inducing effects of counting one’s blessings, expressing gratitude, helping others, and other evidence-based prescriptions given by positive psychologists. She no longer even considers her a member of the “positive psychology” movement. Needless to say, she doesn’t believe material acquisitions are very promising either. All this raises an all-important question – can you, then, raise your happiness set point?

This won’t be easy, since our default level of happiness is partly determined by genes. But with all the recent findings related to brain plasticity, epigenetics, etc., we shouldn’t be easily discouraged. In fact, I suspect there may be a feasible way to upgrade one’s neuropsychological profile and approaching something like lasting happiness. You do need to have at least a slight genetic predisposition to taking this self-improvement road; but in case you have that, the rest is very realistic, and for the more genetically disposed can even be a lot of fun. All you need to do is become an extroverted empiricist. You can achieve this by studying engineering; or statistics and its application in various fields of social engineering, a.k.a. “social sciences.” This personal transformation will also be assisted by anything which keeps the default network in your brain chronically inhibited – plenty of screen time, sensory overstimulation, information overload, multitasking, and rigorous analysis; with very little screen-free downtime or daydreaming. Throwing in some “mindful meditation” would produce even better outcomes.

This, at least, is the path taken by the “empirical” generation whose attitudes are described by David Brooks and Charles Blow in the NYT columns I recently quoted. The young people they write about see most social problems around them as non-systemic and amenable to technical fixes; and are supremely confident, cheerful, and optimistic, even though experts from the older generations think they have good reasons to be weary. Judging from Lybomirsky’s example, female empiricists can even “have it all” – she has been able to successfully combine a high-flying academic career with serial mothering (at 46, she is expecting her fourth kid). Or, and if it is too late for you, you should consider emigrating to the US so that your kids could grow up there and have a better shot at happiness. Lyubomirsky’s parents did this when she was 9, and I really doubt she would have become her current vigorous self if they had waited for the end of the Cold War to leave Moscow forever. And she could have hardly achieved the same emotional tone if her parents had moved to Sofia instead of D.C.

P.S. Oh, and if you want a faster solution, you can try Botox. The temporary paralysis of the muscles in your forehead it provides, and the related inability to frown, can apparently brighten up your mood - unless, of course, you are a truly morose misanthrope.