Staying happy is a matter of wanting to

  • Article by: NARA SCHOENBERG , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2012 - 4:14 PM

The key? Continuing to love whatever -- a painting, a new job, a new spouse -- and not looking for the next big thing.

When Jim Gubbins finally got the job he'd been working toward for 12 years, he was a very happy man.

What's surprising is that three years later, the associate professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts is even happier. Thanks in part to running and meditation, he says he has sustained and enhanced the mood boost he got when he landed his tenure-track teaching position.

"I feel like this is being given the pony you wanted -- plus the farm, and the farmhand to watch the pony," he says.

The idea that a person can get happier and stay happier after a major life change has taken major hits in recent decades, with researchers finding that lottery winners are no happier than nonwinners after 18 months and the happiness boost that follows marriage fades, on average, in about two years.

But a new wave of research is suggesting that the picture is more complex, and rising above your long-term happiness level, or "set point," may be possible, at least for some individuals.

In a preliminary but intriguing new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers from the University of Missouri in Columbia and the University of California at Riverside found that people who continued to appreciate a positive change and derive varying experiences from that change were more likely to sustain a happiness boost.

"We think what it really comes down to is, whatever this change is, it should remain present in your life experience and supply positive daily experiences," says study co-author Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri.

For a newlywed, that might mean going out for dinner with your spouse or planning a trip, Sheldon says. For the proud owner of a new painting, it might mean examining the painting from different angles or taking an art appreciation course.

These activities can sustain your appreciation of the positive change and combat the cycle of rising aspirations, in which something great happens (an engagement, a job promotion) and you're thrilled at first, but then you get used to your new circumstances and long for something even better (a spouse who picks up his socks, a corner office).

The overarching message from the new study is, "smell the roses and don't wish you had even better roses," Sheldon says.

Sheldon's study, like most in the field, has significant limitations -- among them, it looks at happiness levels over only three months. But there's reason to be hopeful; a wide range of studies is beginning to suggest that long-term happiness can change significantly for at least some people.

In an overview of research that appeared in American Psychologist in 2006, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his co-authors found that evidence for a fixed happiness set point, while still very strong, has been overstated in some respects. For instance, a study looking at levels of well-being in a representative German sample over 17 years found that while happiness was stable overall, 24 percent of study respondents experienced significant changes in happiness.

"Long-term levels of happiness do change for some individuals," Diener and his colleagues wrote. "The more intriguing question, then, is why happiness set points change for some individuals more than for others."

The jury is still out on that one, but Sheldon's study suggests that some of us may be better at savoring positive changes and that some changes -- chiefly those that allow for a range of positive experiences such as a career change or a trip to China -- may create a more durable happiness than others.

That's the kind of multifaceted positive change that Gubbins, who was not involved in the Sheldon study, describes when he talks about his long-awaited job promotion.

He loves being a teacher, he says, and he enjoys many aspects of working at a university.

"If I have a funny shoulder, I can talk to someone in the sports and movement sciences department. If have a weird ring in my ears I can talk to a nurse -- I get all this free advice. If I want some good reading literature I can go to my colleague in the English department," says Gubbins, 56.

"There are just all these benefits, which is great."

He also runs, which can boost your mood, according to some studies, and he meditates, which he says has helped him focus on the here and now and appreciate what he has while he has it.

"I used to think it would be great to teach at Boston University or Boston College -- you'd have these really high-powered colleagues, you'd have a lighter teaching load," he says. "And now I see somebody I know who teaches at BU get on the train and I think, 'Oh, poor guy -- I can ride my bike to work, and I ride along the ocean. I ride over this bridge that looks out over these islands.'

"How many people ride to work along the coast, looking out over these just gorgeous views?"

And, no you can't buy happiness. "People get into retail therapy, they're trying to boost their mood, and the problem with buying stuff is, it just sits there. You quickly adapt to it," says Kennon Sheldon, co-author of a new study on long-term happiness in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. "People get into an addictive cycle, we think, where that's the 'fix.' You want your fix, it wears off quickly, so you've got to go buy something else."

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