You 2.0 Where Happiness Hides

We all think we know what will make us happy: more money. A better job. Love. But psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says happiness doesn’t necessarily work like that. This week, we explore why happiness often slips through our fingers, and how to savor — and stretch out — our joys.

Additional Resources


The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin Press, 2013.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin Press, 2008.


The Proximal Experience of Gratitude, Kristin Layous, Kate Sweeny, Christina Armenta, Soojung Na, Incheol Choi, Sonja Lyubomirsky, PLOS ONE, 2017.

The How, Why, What, When, and Who of Happiness: Mechanism Underlying the Success of Positive Activity Interventions, Kristin Layous and Sonja Lyubomirsky, in Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides, J. Gruber & J. Moscowitz (Eds.), Oxford University Press, 2014.

The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How is Parenthood Associated With More or Less Well-Being?, S.Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushlev, & Sonja Lyubomirsky, Psychological Bulletin, 2014.

How Do Simple Positive Activities Increase Well-Being?, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kristin Layous, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2013.

Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, David Shkade, Review of General Psychology, 2005.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. There are some things in life that seem to elude us no matter how hard we try to hold onto them. Memories can be like that, so can happiness. Contentment often seems tantalizingly close but recedes as we reach for it. It all raises a question, is pursuing happiness the best way to be happy?

(Various Voices):

The thing that has brought me the most lasting joy in my life is giving back to others.

I think it's my friends.

Being outdoors, slowing down, appreciating the small things.

One thing that's brought me happiness is my family.

I don't think it's possible to find everlasting happiness, but the thing that has helped me the most is giving up looking for it.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, the psychology of why happiness often slips through our fingers and how to savor and stretch out our joys.

Shankar Vedantam: We all know what it's like to want something that will make us happy. Maybe it's a dream vacation, or getting a great job, or meeting a soulmate, but all too often when we get what we want, reality turns out to be very different than we expect it. At the University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explores the mismatch between what we expect will make us happy and what actually makes us happy. We began by talking about a moment when we felt this mismatch in her own life. She was in her 30s, about to get LASIK surgery to improve her eyesight.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Up until then, I had really poor vision, I was almost blind, I hated my glasses, I hated my contact lenses. So I have the surgery, it takes 30 seconds, and then you go from being almost blind to 20/20 vision. I mean, it's really miraculous and it was amazing. I could see my toes in the shower, when I woke up in the morning I could see the alarm clock without searching for my glasses. When I would walk on the streets, I could read the street signs, that was amazing to me, but it took me about two weeks to get completely used to my new 20/20 vision. Then I just started taking it for granted and it became the new normal for me.

Shankar Vedantam: I've worn glasses for many years myself, Sonja, and as you are talking about the wonders of LASIK surgery, I imagine the moment when I can take off my glasses and be able to see perfectly. Of course, that's what I focus on when I think about getting surgery like you did, I'm not thinking of what happens two weeks after that.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, and whenever we think about changes in our lives, positive and negative, we often think about that moment. It's that moment that I call the news, when you learn that, oh, my vision is perfect, or you get that new job or you win the lottery, but we don't think about what happens as you say in the two weeks, two months, two years after that.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if the problem is especially acute when it comes to questions involving pain or disability. So for example in your case, you spent many years not being able to see clearly, you had the sudden moment of transformation, and two weeks later you got used to it. Is part of the reason this happens, do you think, that we actually have a relatively poor memory for pain or disabilities or shortcomings? Once they're in the rear-view mirror, they really vanish from our attention.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, that's a really great point. I hadn't really thought of it that way. You could argue this evolutionarily adaptive, for us to forget the pain or the misery that we experienced before and we move on. Another example I like to use is, I have pretty bad allergies and that feeling you have, the runny nose and your eyes are itchy and your throat is itchy, but then sometimes they just disappear and then I feel great or I feel neutral and I completely forget what it's like to have that allergy feeling again until it comes back.

Shankar Vedantam: Sonja has noticed the fleeting nature of joy in her professional life as well.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Starting in college I had this dream about becoming a professor. I remember taking this Shakespeare class and watching the professor and I wanted to be her, I wanted to stand on that stage. That was like freshman year, I think. But it was really, really hard, especially grad school, lots of ups and downs. When I finally got my dream job, again, you get the news, oh I have this job or I have my PhD, now people can call me doctor, that was very exciting for a couple days but it's a little anticlimactic. I still remember the day I got tenure, my husband came home from work and I was sitting on my bed where I work in front of my laptop and he's like, "What are you doing?" I'm like, "Well, I'm working." He's like, "Well, why are you working? You got tenure today." Well, because yeah, that's what I'm doing. But it's funny, my PhD advisor, Lee Ross, who he's a giant figure in my field of social psychology but in my life and career as well of course, but he had this saying. He used to say it all the time, and he said, "There are only two things in life that are all that they're cracked up to be. That's sex and tenure," and he was wrong, I mean, at least about tenure. The research shows that people get used to tenure. I actually added a third item to that list, which is Paris. You think it's going to be great and you go and it's really just as great as you think it is, but anyway, it's another example that it's one of those domains where once you get to... you think it's going to be great and it is great but then you start focusing on the next thing. You start focusing on the stress, oh, now I have to teach and I have to apply for grants and do the things that having the job requires.

Shankar Vedantam: You see the same thing of course on different scales in different peoples' lives. Meghan Markle experienced some of this when she joined the British royal family, as almost everyone knows of course. She's an American actor who married Prince Harry, one of the heirs to the British throne. Now, that sounds like it's right out of a fairy tale but here's how she described what life was actually like as a princess. In this clip Sonja, she uses the insider term for the royal family, she calls it the firm.

Meghan Markle: I remember so often people within the firm would say, "Well, you can't do this because it'll look like that." So even, "Can I go and have lunch with my friends?" "No, no, no, you're oversaturated, you're everywhere." I said, "I've left the house twice in four months. I'm everywhere but I am nowhere." From that standpoint, I continued to say to people, "I know there's an obsession with how things look but has anyone talked about how it feels? Because right now I could not feel lonelier."

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a moment, Sonja, about the mismatch she is describing? How something looks, especially from the outside, and how it feels on the inside?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, it's a beautiful quote because again when we think about like, what would it be like to be a princess, or whatever it is we want to be? We focus on the most salient change between my life today and the life of a princess, but we don't really think about what daily life, as Meghan Markle said, what daily life would actually feel like and some of the hassles, some of the monotony, some of the loneliness. We just think again, about the news. It's similar to having money or not, like if someone said to me, "Oh, you're going to get a million dollars," but what does it mean once you have it? What is your life going to be, but then after I get that $1 million or after I learn I'm a princess, then I have to go to the dentist, or then I have to deal with my kid's tantrum. Right? So daily life, and Dan Gilbert talks about this beautifully, daily life is mostly about all these mundane things, not about that kind of life change that you think is going to make you forever happy or forever unhappy for that matter.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at one other domain where our expectations are often confounded by reality. You talk about this in your book, The Myths of Happiness, and this has to do with love and personal relationships. Now, these mismatches are a staple of many television shows and movies. In the comedy, "This is 40," a longtime married couple find themselves bickering all the time.

Leslie Mann, as Debbie: We're like business associates, we're like brother and sister. There's no passion there.

Paul Rudd, as Pete: We're not like brother and sister. You know what we're like? We're like Simon and Garfunkel, and somehow you turned me into Garfunkel.

Leslie Mann, as Debbie: I don't even know what that means.

Paul Rudd, as Pete: Art Garfunkel.

Leslie Mann, as Debbie: What's wrong with Art Garfunkel? He has a beautiful voice.

Paul Rudd, as Pete: He's got an amazing voice, he could put a harmony to anything, but what I'm saying is that you turn me into him.

Leslie Mann, as Debbie: What the hell are you talking about?

Paul Rudd, as Pete: Simon controls him.

Leslie Mann, as Debbie: That's because Simon writes the (beep) songs, he's the better one.

Shankar Vedantam: Of course, this sounds much less funny when it happens to you. Sonja, in your book you talk about this mismatch between our expectations and reality when it comes to love and marriage. Could I ask you what your own experience has been in love and marriage, and whether you've seen firsthand what your research has shown?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I'll tell you, but I hope that my husband is not listening to this episode. So, by the way, I love that movie. So yeah, what happens is passionate love tends to turn to companion love. Companion love is beautiful, you really love and trust your partner, they're your best friend, but passion fades in almost all good relationships. It only doesn't fade in bad relationships, abusive ones. So yeah, that happened to me I think to a great extent, it happens to almost every couple where the first weeks, months, are just incredible, that honeymoon period, but then you transition to a more best friend period. But when we think about getting married, when we think about love and romance, some people focus on the wedding, but really, it's just one day. It's really the marriage you should focus on. So anyways, so passion, I hate to tell this to your listeners, but passion doesn't tend to last.

Shankar Vedantam: This is why many movies and TV shows about love end with couples overcoming hurdles to get together. The story ends with the wedding because what comes afterwards is often narratively unsatisfying.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I like to go back to evolutionary explanations for things. You could imagine that if passionate love did not fade, then life would be difficult. There's a line in the movie, I think it's Before Sunset, something like if passionate love didn't fade, then we'd never get anything done.

Julie Delpy, as Celine: Thank god, otherwise we would end up with aneurysms if we were in that constant state of excitement, right? We would end up doing nothing at all with our lives.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: We would be, right? Remember what it's like when you're first in love? That's all you can think of, right? You can't even really focus on friendship, all you think about is that new love of yours. So maybe it's a good thing that it fades a little bit.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, the mismatch between expectations and reality does not always work in a negative way, sometimes we can find ourselves happily surprised. I'd like to talk about some of these moments. Can you tell me about the last time Sonja, you got a really good night of sleep?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: People don't think about how much sleep contributes to your happiness. Let's see, last night I did not have a good night of sleep. We have a heatwave here where I live in Santa Monica and so it was a little too hot for me, but sleep really does contribute to happiness, but in a way that's invisible, you just feel good and you don't realize it's because you had good sleep.

Shankar Vedantam: Isn't it interesting, Sonja, that we're often very aware when we don't have a good night of sleep because we can see the effect that it has on our mood and how things go and how we react to the world, but when we have a good night of sleep, we don't spend a moment to say, "I should be grateful for having this good night of sleep, because in fact, I feel very, very different." So we notice things when they don't go our way and we ignore things when they do.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, this is part of this, the bad is stronger than good phenomenon. We notice bad, again, it's adaptive, it's functional for us to pay attention to bad things, to threats in our environment and adversities. We tend to take the good for granted.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, the intricate brain psychology that produces these mismatches, and how we can trick the machinery in our minds into making ourselves a little happier. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Happiness is a paradox, the things that we expect will make us happy often don't, and many things that do make us happy are often not what we might've predicted. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky studies these mismatches. She believes that by understanding how these mismatches come about, we can actually do things to increase our happiness and decrease our misery. Sonja, I want to start by unpacking some of the psychological drivers of these mismatches, and I want to start with perhaps the most important idea of all. Can you tell me what you mean by "hedonic adaptation?"

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yes, hedonic adaption is basically the phenomenon that human beings are remarkably good at getting used to changes in our lives, both positive changes and negative changes, although hedonic adaption is faster to positive changes.

Shankar Vedantam: When people sometimes talk about the "hedonic treadmill," what do they mean by that phrase? What is the hedonic treadmill?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Right, so the hedonic treadmill, so I think of the hedonic treadmill as basically hedonic adaptation in action. So there's really two, I guess, aspects of hedonic adaptation that are really important, is that what happens is when we get the job that we want, when we get more money, have a new relationship that we really like, that what happens after those positive changes is that first our expectations or aspirations change. So now when we live in the bigger house, that becomes our new normal, and so now we think, well maybe an extra bedroom would be even nicer, or a deck would be nicer. I certainly have friends who are constantly talking about improving their houses even though their houses are perfectly beautiful and enormous. The other thing that matters is our social comparisons change. So when we move into that bigger house in a new neighborhood, suddenly we notice our neighbors have houses that might be even nicer than ours or drive cars that are nicer than ours. So our social comparisons change, which also leads us to want even more. So again, the bottom line is hedonic adaptation leads us to want even more than we have, so we're never quite satisfied.

Shankar Vedantam: The idea of the treadmill of course is that you're walking but it feels like you're staying in place. In fact, you've moved up in the world, but emotionally it feels like you are where you used to be.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Right, right, so the hedonic treadmill is kind of like: You're getting more stuff, you're getting more goals accomplished, but then you want even more than that so you don't feel like you're any happier. Again, getting back to evolutionary theory, you could argue that this is really good, this is adaptive that human beings are never quite satisfied. If we didn't have hedonic adaptation, maybe we'd just be complacent and we'd just stop pursuing new things and all progress might stop. So it's a good thing but it's not so good for our happiness.

Shankar Vedantam: Hedonic adaptation also plays out at a societal level, as countries get wealthier and people can live in bigger homes and drive better cars, they often don't end up feeling happier. Because our expectations can grow faster than our bank accounts, we can be much better off than people who lived 75 years ago... But feel worse.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I mean, at this specific level it used to be people would have one car per household, now we have two to three cars per household, and people lived in smaller houses. Think about our appliances, and I remember actually, I grew up in Russia where we had to wash our clothes by hand. That was a huge pain but we didn't really think about it because we didn't think about the alternative. Then of course now I can't imagine going back to not having a washing machine.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: So yeah, so we get... our expectations change. Then at a broader level, there's some research that shows that for example, women are a little less satisfied than used to be and it's likely because now women feel like there are all these opportunities that they have and but maybe they aren't able to achieve all of those opportunities. Maybe they still have more responsibilities at home, whereas it used to be their expectations were lower, there wasn't really that alternative. It's wonderful that we have all these new opportunities, but it also means that our expectations keep constantly changing and rising and improving.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, you once visited Google, which is the company that famously gives employees fabulous benefits. You talked with some of the employees at Google about how much they were appreciating the things that they got at the company. What did people tell you?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, it's funny, it was really cool. People brought their pets to work and they had game rooms and they had music rooms with guitars and drums and all kinds of snacks everywhere, and really great food. And people were like, "Oh, the crab cakes again?" So they were, they already had adapted, right? And partly they don't go visit other workplaces. One of my advice was like, well, go visit other workplaces so you could see that you have it better than others. But yeah, we just adapt so quickly, it's amazing to me.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want to talk about these twin enemies, one is a resentment about what we don't have, and the second is a sense of entitlement about what we do have. So for example when it used to take weeks to basically make a transatlantic journey and now you can make the journey in seven hours, and now people are sitting in the airport saying, "How come my plane is 20 minutes late, or why haven't we departed on time?" So our capacity to be entitled, to take for granted the things that we have, it's almost infinite.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, it's amazing. Actually, airplanes are a great example. I remember, I don't know when but the very first time I flew business class in an airplane, it took me like five minutes to get used to the idea that no, I'm this higher class citizen. I remember looking at those poor souls who are shuffling their way to the back of the airplane and feeling superior to them. It's so easy and it's so fast that we become adapted to things and we feel entitled to them.

Shankar Vedantam: We have talked a little bit about the role of adaption in love and marriage, and you've talked a little bit about this in your own life, Sonja. When you had children, what was your experience having children? Was it different after you had one child? I mean, did you feel like you adapted very quickly to the idea of having one child and then wanted another?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I hate to say it, but there is something really special about that first child because you can never have that experience again. The thing is yeah, I did adapt to having children, I ended up having four, believe it or not, but not 100%. Partly it's because they're always growing and changing, and we haven't talked about this but we tend to adapt to constant stimuli. So you buy a car and then it's the same car today as it is next week and next month, but children aren't the same in a month. So we don't adapt to them completely. I do think there are few things, a few activities that we might do that we don't adapt to. The one thing that I've never adapted to is cuddling with my kids. I am so happy, I feel like I'm high when I'm cuddling with them, and I have two little ones now. I have never adapted to that, so I think there are some things that maybe to correct my old advisor, Lee Ross, that they're all that they're cracked up to be. Maybe not sex and tenure, but cuddling and Paris. I don't know, I'll have to rethink about that.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to focus on another area that we touched on a little bit earlier, and that had to do with the role that evolution might play in prompting us to feel certain ways about certain things. So certainly when it comes to love for example, the experience of infatuation, the experience of passionate love as you point out, it's designed in some ways, we're designed to experience these very strong emotions. But I'm wondering if you can talk a moment about the fact that when we experience these very strong emotions, they don't feel like they're transient. I think one of the things, one of the reasons people often feel let down when passionate love retreats from their lives, is because they feel like when they're experiencing passionate love, it feels as if it's going to last forever. Can you talk a little bit about the role that our instincts play and how wise we would be to trust or to mistrust our instinct in telling us what to do and when to be happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: It's an excellent point, and it applies to lots of domains. So when we're first in love, we can't imagine the passion fading, but I remember, I really should not talk to couples but there's a couple that I was talking to who are really passionately in love and they're like, "Sonja, don't tell us that passion fades." I'm like, "Welllll..." Because you just can't imagine it. Maybe that's good, because you wouldn't really be happy if you're constantly thinking, oh, this is not going to last, but or imagine when you're really hungry. You're not supposed to go shopping when you're too hungry because you just can't imagine ever not being hungry. It applies to lots of states and lots of emotions, or when we're miserable for that matter. When we're depressed, it's really hard to think about how... there'll come a time when I'm not going to feel this down. Another example actually, this is one reason I actually started studying happiness is that I'm amazed at how our mood can affect how we feel about everything. Some days we wake up and we're just happy and everything's up to... we're so optimistic, and we feel good about ourselves, we just feel good about everything. Then other days we wake up and we feel not so good about everything, and it's really hard to remind ourselves that no, I'm not going to feel this way forever.

Shankar Vedantam: When we try and forecast whether something is going to make us happy or unhappy, we're actually thinking about the thing, we're trying to imagine what would it be like to have perfect vision, or what will it be like to be a prince or a princess, or to get a great job, or to find a soulmate? We're ruminating on it in the present. Can you talk about the concept of present bias and how the things that we're thinking about in some ways loom larger in our minds than they actually will in the future?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, exactly. So when we think about, when we're forecasting our future feelings, we're thinking about the change. One of my favorite studies out of the University of Chicago, people got the news that they're going to get a Kit Kat Bar and then they anticipated eating it, and then they ate it, consumed it, and then they recalled it. Similar studies have been done with vacations. Imagine being told you're going to go to Venice, and then now anticipated, now go to Venice, now recall it. Some of the studies show that the biggest impact on your happiness is during the news part when you first learn, oh, you get to go to Venice, I get to have this chocolate bar and the anticipation also, more than the consumption or the recall, the recollection of it.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about another psychological driver of the mismatch between our expectations and reality. That is, we often don't respond with proportion to the annoyances and irritants in daily life. Sonja, you had a couple of experiences in close proximity to one another, one of which you could classify as a minor irritant, and the other was much more serious. Can you tell me about these two incidents and what you learned about yourself from them?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I actually had these two bad experiences on the same day. I had a long reserved window seat on a really long flight and it was taken away from me, so then I had to sit in the middle, and I was really unhappy about that. But then on the same day, I got into a really bad car accident on the freeway. I mean, I wasn't hurt but my car was completely totaled and it was kinda traumatic. What was incredible is that when I had the car accident, I actually was really calm and cool headed and I knew what I had to do, I didn't panic. It's amazing to me how sometimes when really big and bad things happen we are less upset in the moment, maybe because we're mustering all the resources that we have to cope with the situation, whereas when little hassles happen to us we get angry and we get stressed out.

Shankar Vedantam: I think that's a profound insight that you had here, Sonja, because I feel like all of us have had this experience. You hear this all the time when there are major calamities happening, ordinary people act with great heroism and poise, and yet you also see people reacting with over the top annoyance and frustration at totally trivial things. I think there's something here that's not just in your mind, but really something that's more generalizable to how human beings think about minor and major irritants.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I agree, and I think partly it has to do with the stories that we tell about these events, where with the really big thing we take pains to make sense of it, to look on the bright side, maybe to rationalize it, what we've learned from it. The little things are hard to rationalize, like okay, so I lost my airplane window seat. I'm not going to commiserate with my friends about that, they'll be bored or it'd be like, wow, your life is boring. But then I could get social support for the car accident.

Shankar Vedantam: Right, so we all know people who are simply happy, bad stuff happens to them but they bounce back. We also know people who are mostly unhappy, good things happen to them and they might have a brief blip of joy and then they go back to feeling morose about their lives. Can you talk about the role of happiness set points as one of the psychological drivers between the mismatch between our expectations and reality?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Sure, well, we all know that some people are happier than others. This is actually how my research in happiness started in grad school, when my advisor and I started talking about, like, why are some people happier than others?

Shankar Vedantam: There's almost a resentful edge to that question, Sonja.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Oh yeah, it sounds like it, right, but again, I'm a pretty happy person but I'm still interested in that question. There's clearly, there's evidence that there are genetic influences on happiness, and anyone who has more than one child can attest to, you feel like you're raising them in a similar environment and yet some of your kids are probably a lot happier than others, or they get much more distressed by the same kind of event, one kid more than another. So that does play a role, that happier people are "luckier" in a sense, that they're naturally more grateful and optimistic and more resilient than people who are less happy. So yeah, that's clearly one of the drivers at how we respond to major changes in our lives.

Shankar Vedantam: But isn't it also a source of the mismatch because for example, if my happiness levels are actually set at a certain level or in other words, I have some ability to change them up or down, let's say 10%, 15%, 20%, but I don't have the ability to change it by 70%. But I imagine if I get the relationship that I want, if I get the job that I want, if I can move to the city that I want, I can become a radically different person who is entirely different in terms of happiness, but in fact if my set point of happiness is fixed at certain level, this might be why there's a mismatch between my expectations and reality.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Right, well first let me state that if you live in a war zone in Syria or you're in an abusive relationship or you're very poor, then absolutely the environment can change in ways to make you a lot happier. But let's say most of the listeners to this program maybe have fairly comfortable lives so that they're not very, very poor or they're not in a war zone. So in that situation, yes, they could become happier but probably not hugely, hugely happier. But one of my favorite ways to think about this comes from, I think it was Dear Abby, actually, where someone wrote a letter to her and said, "Oh, I have this job but I don't like it so then I moved to this other job. I thought that would be better but I don't like that one either, I hate my boss. Then I went to a third job," and on and on. Abby said, "It's not the job, it's you. You're the same person moving from one job to the other," but that could happen in the positive side as well.

Shankar Vedantam: Another driver in the mismatch between our happiness and our expectations is not inside our own heads but in our culture.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: One of the reasons I became interested in happiness is that when I moved to the US when I was almost 10 years old, I noticed how different Americans were... So Americans would walk down the street and they would smile at you and they would say hi, and Russians don't really do that in the street. On the other hand, I noticed differences that are public versus private. So when you go to dinner in a Russian home, and this is a stereotype but it's really true, people are drinking and they're singing and they're laughing and telling jokes. I remember the first time that I was invited to dinner at a friend's house in Washington DC where I grew up, and people were sitting very seriously around the table, saying, "Can you pass the salt, please?" I thought, wow, they don't seem very happy. I think this doesn't mean that they're not happy but I became interested in these cultural differences.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I'm wondering though, is it possible that certain cultural contexts change our standards of how happy we should be, because there are some cultural contexts that say that happiness is a right. I mean, the pursuit of happiness is actually literally enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence, there are very few other countries whose founding documents say that the pursuit of happiness is a worthwhile goal. I'm wondering, does that change the way we think? On the one hand, it probably prompts people to actually seek happiness, in other places they might be more resigned to wherever they are, but it also potentially makes people more unhappy because you're constantly asking, how can I be happier than what I am right now?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, so I think in the US and in western culture, there's much more of a focus or maybe a preoccupation with happiness, that can actually backfire, that can lead to some unhappiness. On the other hand, even in Russia, it's funny, there's this focus on, in Russian people talk about the importance of suffering. Suffering is important because it builds character and it might help you gain salvation in the next life. But when I went back actually years ago in the '90s and I asked people, "What do you want most for your children?" Russian parents said, "I want my children to be happy." So I do think that happiness is a fairly universal goal but how we pursue it differs, and I guess how important it is does differ because there is more of an obsession with happiness in our culture.

Shankar Vedantam: Our perceptions, predictions, and expectations about happiness are often flawed. A shiny prize is supposed to make us happy but when it doesn't, we immediately start looking for the next shiny object. When we come back, how to break that cycle and use psychology to crack the happiness code. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. We all want to be happy, but finding happiness isn't as straightforward as it looks. Sometimes marrying a prince or getting the riches you desire does not make you happy. And sometimes things you might not have predicted would make you happy, bring a big smile to your face. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist who has spent years studying these mismatches but also looking for ways to crack the happiness code. Sonja, you and your husband did not live together before you got married, and much later in your research, you realized that you may have unintentionally done something that was psychologically smart. Now, you're not making a puritanical argument here about how people should behave in their private lives, but getting an important insight about how our minds work. Can you tell me what you found in your personal life and how this was reflected by your research?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Absolutely, I mean, we've been talking about how quickly we adapt to positive changes in our lives and when you fall in love... I remember falling in love with my husband and I really wanted to spend all my time with him. I wanted to move in with him before we got married, but he, not for any kind of moral or religious reason, he just thought, we'd be happier if we waited until we got married. We got married maybe a year later, and then when we did move in together, it was so wonderful that it made getting married so much more special. I hate to admit it, but now of course we have adapted to living together after 23 years. In fact, during the pandemic I would tell him, "Pete," his name is Peter, "Can you please leave the house for maybe three, four, five hours," because he never left the house so I was never alone. But I love him, but I just don't want to see him 24 hours a day. So there are different things we could do to try to stave off that adaptation or is... and one of them for us was not moving in together until after the wedding.

Shankar Vedantam: So there's an important insight here in some ways, which is that when you have positive experiences, obviously the thing we want to do is to keep those positive experiences going, we never want them to stop, we want to enjoy them more and more. But the paradox is, of course when we do that, we start to adapt to them, we get used to them, and then they lose their pleasure, they lose the joy that they used to give us. So one solution, it might seem a little difficult, but in some ways you came up with this solution inadvertently I think before you got married, in some ways is to limit how much you're enjoying the thing that is giving you pleasure. That in some ways if you could bank your happiness to say this happiness awaits me but I'm actually going to postpone it by just a little bit, you can draw out the happiness a little longer. Can you talk about this idea, Sonja?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, exactly, scarcity and limiting your experience is going to make you happier. I guess a really good example is eating out at your favorite restaurant or listening to your favorite song. You just don't want to do that too often because then you'll become more monotonous, it'll become less interesting, less enjoyable.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, and during the pandemic, I think all of us have had this experience of things that were routine to us before the pandemic became extremely rare during the pandemic. Going on to a restaurant or meeting with friends or sitting down at a coffee shop or giving someone a hug. Suddenly we realized, oh my god, these things actually are incredibly valuable. When we saw people meeting each other after a long time or hugging one another or sitting down at a restaurant together, we suddenly were struck by how powerful this was, but of course it took the external force of a pandemic in some ways to induce that scarcity in our lives.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, and I hate to say it but I think after it's over, we may very well just go right back to what we were before and take those things for granted. Hopefully we've learned a lesson to try not to take them for granted and to introduce that scarcity into our lives and variety as well. Again, if you do the same thing once a week or every day, you're not going to get as much pleasure out of it.

Shankar Vedantam: There is a less painful way to acquire the benefits of scarcity in our lives. Instead of forgoing pleasure or delaying it, or having the joys in our lives robbed by disaster or tragedy, you can use your imagination to visualize what it would be like to not have that particular source of happiness in your life.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Oh yes, oh my god, yes, exactly, or the counterfactual, what if you didn't have the thing? But I think that idea is that life is impermanent, that things are not lasting, that's what gives everything this bittersweet flavor, and also allows us to savor. So one of the most common ways to, I think, to try to enjoy something is to think, this is the last time. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Casa Blanca is like, "Kiss me, kiss me like it's the last time." So that really makes you really enjoy and savor that kiss in a way that you won't if you know you can kiss 100 more times next week.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, and this goes back to the employees we talked about at companies that give you fancy lunches and do your dry cleaning for you. It might be helpful to spend a day a week or a day a month at another company which does not give you those kinds of things so that you can better appreciate what it is that you have.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Or that company shouldn't just throw a fire hose of goodies at you every day, but somehow limit them and intermittently sprinkle them, like crab cakes only on special days, not every day.

Shankar Vedantam: But isn't it ironic, Sonja, that the impulse that we have, if something gives us pleasure, we want more of it. In some ways it's almost counterintuitive to say that we actually want to hold this pleasurable thing at bay to some extent in order to draw out the happiness we can derive from it.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, another example is in a new relationship where you become more and more intimate, you reveal more and more of yourself to the other person. It's so pleasurable because you're like, you get to know them better. Some couples just, they just do it too fast, they just tell each other everything in the first two weeks, and then there's not very much left. So I tell young people to go slower, allow that intimacy building to last longer.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at ways we can extend happiness and make it last longer. In her book, The Myths of Happiness, Sonja has also studied techniques to limit unhappiness or at least to make it end more quickly. One of them: Put down negative experiences in a journal.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: So writing forces you to think about your life of experiences in a systematic way, like what causes what, and so it helps you process those experiences. So we have some studies that have shown that it's helpful or it makes people happier when they write about negative experiences, but not positive experiences. So positive experiences, you don't want to try to explain or process or systematically analyze, you want to just let them happen. So there's this little bit of asymmetry where you want to write about negative things to get past them but not write about or not really analyze positive things. Think about your happiest day, and you don't want to analyze it like, oh, why did that happen? Why did I feel so good? That makes the happiness go away.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a little bit about the role of social interactions as an important ingredient for day-to-day happiness? We talked about sleep earlier on as one of those things where you'll notice it when you don't have it. But can you talk about the similar role that social interactions play in our day-to-day wellbeing?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yeah, well social interaction, social connection, I think is what makes life worth living. I'm doing quite a bit of research on that. But basically: People are happier when they're interacting with others, interventions that have instructed people to interact more with others on a daily basis, they showed that people become happier when they're more socially engaged. So connection really is critical, although it can be very different kinds of connection. It could be with your pet, it could be with one person, it could be with many people, it could be with close family versus acquaintances or strangers, so there's different kinds of connection that can make people happy.

Shankar Vedantam: Sonja, modern psychology has found again and again that happiness comes not just doing the right things but doing them for the right reasons. I want to play you a bit of a commencement speech at the University of Houston. This is from the actor Matthew McConaughey, who's talking about an important change he made in his priorities.

Matthew McConaughey: I started enjoying my work and literally being more happy when I stopped trying to make the daily labor a means to a certain end. For example, I need this film to be a box office success, I need my performance to be acknowledged, I need the respect of my peers. All of those are reasonable aspirations but the truth is as soon as the work, the daily making of the movie, the doing of the deed became the reward in itself for me, I got more box office, more accolades and respect than I ever had before.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a moment about this idea, Sonja, that the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation and whether it has anything to do with the conversation we are having here about happiness?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yes, I was just going to say, intrinsic goals. So when you do something just for the sake of the pleasure of doing it, the satisfaction of doing it, the fulfillment of doing it, you're going to be more creative, you're going to be more productive. You're going to do better, as opposed to, I'm just doing this to get an A in a class, or to get a certain number of widgets sold. So absolutely, I think the intrinsic goals are really important, and this also gets back to what we were talking about before about the importance of the journey of getting there, of pursuing the goal as opposed to the end goal and the state that will be when the goal is accomplished.

Shankar Vedantam: Sonja, I'm wondering whether psychologists have talked about the importance of what they call a gratitude practice. Is it possible that a gratitude practice in some ways can be a defense against hedonic adaptation?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Exactly, I think of gratitude as the perfect antidote to hedonic adaption. When you think about hedonic adaptation, when you have adapted to something positive in your life, that means that you have essentially taken it for granted. When you try to be grateful for the things in your life, whether it's your health or your opportunities or your job or your family, you're basically trying not to take them for granted, you're neutralizing that adaption. That could happen in lots of different domains, whether it's in your job or your family or about past experiences. I had the experience where I had a really miserable childhood and miserable adolescence. So when I left home to go to college, it was so amazing. So instead of that negative experience being traumatizing and affecting me negatively, I was so happy and so grateful that it was over. So, and I still think about that sometimes, I'm still happy that I'm not an adolescent anymore. So yeah, so I think gratitude can be very powerful.

Shankar Vedantam: I remember speaking with Dan Gilbert, who has also studied the science of happiness for many years. I remember asking him some years ago whether he was a happier person as a result of doing all this research. Dan told me that he wasn't a happier person, he said, "I'm just as unhappy as I used to be, I just know why I'm unhappy." I'm wondering if that's true for you as well, Sonja. Have you actually learned from your research to become happier?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: I love that quote from Dan. Again, I'm a fairly happy person to begin with, but that doesn't mean that I'm always doing the right things to be happy. My first book is called, The How of Happiness, where I talked about 12 different strategies to make people happier. I still remember that every chapter that I wrote, I became obsessed with that particular practice, whether it's doing acts of kindness or I was writing that chapter. Then I started thinking like, oh, I should do some acts of kindness for my husband today, or one of my favorite strategies is savoring. Savoring is basically extracting the maximum enjoyment out of an experience. So I remember writing that chapter and really thinking a lot about how I could savor the moment because sometimes we're so busy... I'd be with my kids and instead of enjoying my time with the kids, I'm thinking about what I have to do tomorrow, my to-do list instead of savoring that time. So doing research on happiness essentially is like a daily reminder of the kinds of things that we could be doing to be happy. Sometimes I actually take my own medicine and I do those things.

Shankar Vedantam: As we've seen, hedonic adaptation can rob us of happiness, but it can also work in our favor when times are bad. How you feel about a setback that happens to you is rarely how you will feel about it after two weeks or two months or two years. It's also the case that sometimes things that appear like disasters are not in fact disasters. Sonja likes a parable about this idea from ancient China.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: It's a really wonderful little story about an old farmer who lived in a poor little country village, but he owned a horse so he was luckier than his neighbors and they thought that he was so lucky. But one day his beloved horse ran away and so upon hearing that, his neighbors thought, oh, such bad luck, but then the horse came back and he came back with six wild horses. So suddenly he was lucky again and his neighbors were jealous of him. But then his son rode one of the wild horses and broke his leg and so now this old man was unlucky again because his son had a broken leg, and his neighbors were thinking, oh, poor guy, he's so unlucky. But then there was a war going on and some conscription officers came to the village to draft young men, but his son wasn't drafted because he had a broken leg. So now the farmer was lucky again. So anyways, it's a lovely story that suggests that sometimes the best thing that has happened to us is actually the same thing as the worst thing that has happened to us. It reminds me of actually a dinner that I went to once with a bunch of friends on New Years Eve, and we asked each other the question, what is the best event that happened that year and what was the worst thing that happened to us that year? For most people, the best and the worst event was the same thing. It was like someone got laid off from a job but then they got an even better job, or they broke up a relationship but now they're happier or they're in a better relationship. So yeah, it really has always struck me how that showed that the best thing and the worst thing can be the same thing.

Shankar Vedantam: I love the line you have in the book from William Blake that describes this so elegantly.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Yes, I love William Blake, he has this great line from Auguries of Innocence, "Joy and woe are woven fine."

Shankar Vedantam: Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of the books, The How of Happiness, and The Myths of Happiness. Sonja, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Thank you, Shankar, so much. It was wonderful to talk to you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer, I'm Hidden Brain's Executive Editor. Our unsung hero this week is Katie Baker. Katie is a Senior Manager of Content Operations at Stitcher. It's been about a year since we first met Katie and in that year, she has helped us with all sorts of things from big audio projects to urgent technical questions. She's one of those people who gets things done with skill and efficiency and makes it look easy even though a lot of work is happening behind the scenes. Thank you so much, Katie. For more Hidden Brain, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. You'll find new research insights about human behavior, a brain teaser, and a moment of joy. You can subscribe and That's I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.


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