Life can be hard enough without creating extra problems for ourselves. Yet that's what many of us do by applying false or incomplete expectations to our major life goals. According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky in her new book, The Myths of Happiness, people carry around many misguided visions of what it will take to make them happy about their lives. "Immoderate aspirations are toxic to happiness," she writes.
In Lyubomirsky's book, she applies extensive research findings toward helping people deal with 10 major life-crisis points, including problems in human relationships, money, careers, and older-age health and achievement regrets.
The myths she refers to are conceptions people often have about the things they think they need to lead happy and successful lives: strong marriages and personal relationships, wealth and professional acclaim, and long lives featuring good health and the comfort of having achieved their life goals.
In fact, she argues, there is a growing and persuasive body of solid scientific evidence that idealized versions of life goals can prevent people from being happy and living successful lives. While there are many reasons this happens, the strongest is that people simply fail to appreciate the powers of human adaptation.
When we fall in love and pursue a passionate relationship, for example, we adapt to the passion and it becomes less central to the relationship. Interactions that once were novel and exciting become routine. Hedonic adaptation is the phrase social scientists apply to the decreasing value of repeated positive events. It is a natural process, but one that still takes people by surprise, often leading them to question important relationships and life goals.
"Our tendency to get used to almost everything positive that happens to us is a formidable obstacle to our happiness," Lyubomirsky writes. "Reduced sexual passion [for example] is perceived as a symptom of something being wrong with our relationship (when it's just a symptom of the normal process of adaptation)."
Likewise, humans also are incredibly resilient in adapting to negative events and hardships. Yet people often overestimate the consequences of adverse life events, in terms of both the duration of their effect and their severity. "Because most of us aren't aware of the ordinary but remarkable dominance of this ability," she writes, ""we typically underestimate our capacity to weather almost any unhappiness."
Lyubomirsky provides research-driven advice to help people deal with specific crisis points in her book. But there are a few tips that apply to many of the problems we confront.
1. Because hedonic adaptation is so powerful—"We can never experience something for the first time twice," Lyubomirsky observes—it can be helpful to devise ways to delay the adaptation process, breaking it down into smaller pieces or steps. Seeking to acquire experiences rather than material goods is especially effective, because it's much harder to take memorable experiences for granted, and their value may actually grow over time. Variety, surprise, and unpredictability can also introduce freshness into experiences that would otherwise become commonplace.
2. It's not the destination points in your life goals that ultimately give you satisfaction and happiness, but the striving and experiences along the way. And among those experiences, it's the small ones that seem to add up to have the largest impact, not a few big ones. "The scientific evidence delivers three kernels of wisdom," she writes. "First, that short bursts of gladness, tranquility, or delight are not trivial at all; second, that it's frequency, not intensity, that counts; and third, most of us seem not to know this."
3. Writing about your life issues is a powerful and often emotional way to confront them and work through tough challenges. "Putting our emotional upheavals into words helps us make sense of them, accommodate to them, and begin to move past them," the book says.
4. It is hard, if not impossible, to live a full life without also having many regrets. "Instead of letting our regrets and might-have-beens poison our happiness," she writes, "we can choose to examine them in ways that will help us grow into more complex, wiser, and ultimately happier individuals."
5. People who succeed at making sense of their lives achieve "autobiographical coherence." Being able to view their activities as part of a coherent life story gives meaning and richness to events, making them part of a significant journey and not just "a collection of isolated, fleeting moments."
Lastly, Lyubomirsky counters the myth that people become unhappy and disappointed with their lives as they get older. The reality is just the opposite. Research concludes that "older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people," she writes. "They experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones, and their emotional experience is more stable and less sensitive to the vicissitudes of daily negativity and stress."