Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has made happiness his lifelong pursuit. His provocative research-popularized in the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness and in his three-part NOVA series, This Emotional Life (airing online at pbs.org)-finds that humans are lousy at predicting what will bring us joy. More money? Not really. God? Maybe. Marriage? Definitely. 'It's hugely important to be happy,' Gilbert says, 'and I don't mean walking around with a silly smile on your face. I mean achieving a general sense of satisfaction with life and a sense of well-being.' Read on for his ideas.
COMMITMENT 'People who commit to relationships are much happier than those who don't. That's why married people are happier than those who just live together. When people commit to something that's expensive or difficult to get out of, they report feeling happier. My girlfriend and I had been living together for a dozen years, and those findings seemed so clear to me that I went home and proposed. Now we're married, and I do love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend, even though she's the same person. Commitment isn't just a sign of love; it's a cause of love.'
LITTLE THINGS 'To increase happiness, worry less about big, big sources of joy and find a steady stream of small sources. When I came to Harvard, if you'd said, ‘Name the three greatest sources of your happiness,' I might have said, ‘The students, the resources, and the faculty.' Now I would put walking to and from work very high on the list. Do I get ecstasy from walking to work? No, but it's a pleasure that happens reliably twice a day, every day. When good things happen a lot, over time it changes your life.'
HANG IN THERE 'Psychologists would have you believe that people are a field of fragile flowers who need to visit a therapist when their shoelaces break. The reality is, people are quite strong, much stronger than they themselves realize. One piece of advice I give people who have just experienced hardship is to just hang on. Let time do what time does well. You'll be surprised in a year and see how much better you are.'
GO TO CHURCH (OR SOMEWHERE) 'Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers, but not for the reasons people expect. Our best indication is that it's not the religion part that makes people happy. It's the going-to-church part. It's the community part. It's the holding hands and singing. It's the knowing-folks-who-would-bring-you-soup-if-you-got-sick part. Odds seem to me pretty good that you could also get all the benefits out of a really tight stamp-collecting club.'
GIVING '(A recent study) showed that when people were given money to spend, those who spent it on others were happiest. Giving is literally a joy. If you want to feel better about your day, buy the guy in back of you at Starbucks a cup of coffee. Watch the look on his face. That's a long-lasting hit of happiness for you. You'll get your $1.85 back, I guarantee it.'
INVEST IN EXPERIENCES 'Experience is almost always a greater determinant of happiness than things are. We want the new car and believe it will bring us happiness. Meanwhile, the vacation seems like a splurge. But if you're going on vacation, odds are somebody's going with you. And when we are connected well to others, we feel most happy. A vacation also creates lasting memories. A car? It sits in the driveway, gets old and rusts, looks worse than the neighbor's, and starts causing you dissatisfaction rather than satisfaction.'