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Mindful : June 2015
vision that has dogged us since long before my father started crooning Happy Days Are Here Again. There seems to be a growing hunger for a truer, more achievable a nd sustainable happiness than our shopworn trifecta of stuff, status, and achievements. The 114,000 people who sig ned up for Greater Good’s online course would seem to suggest as much. So would the 120 participants who flocked from around the globe to the Esalen Institute to attend Greater Good’s “Science of Happiness” weekend. What better setting for a happiness weekend than the birthplace of the human potential movement, I think, as I enter the large, lodge-like dining room that, along with the famous cliffside mineral baths, is the heart of the Esalen experience. A loud buzz reverberates as guests help themselves to the evening meal of shepherd’s pie, then find a place at one of the long tables. Some have come on their own, others with a friend or partner, but everyone seems curious about who else is there and why—and seemingly random seating arrangements result in connections that last all weekend and perhaps beyond. Many of the folks I talk to have already taken the online course and want to go deeper. Others, including therapists, teachers, doctors, environ- mentalists, and leadership consultants, plan to bring the lessons back to their communities and families. And just about everyone aspires to boost his or her own happiness quotient. Laurie, destined to become my weekend BFF, tells me she believes opening to happiness is a lot like exercise. “ You have to set the intention, then work your muscles by trying out var- ious practices, but without worr ying too much about how happy you are at any one moment,” she suggests. A nd even though we’re at Esalen, with its countercultural mystique, the crowd doesn’t seem to be in search of a woo woo experience. One woman, who could be speaking for the majority, tells me, “I like that the material isn’t all touchy-feely. It’s about chang ing your habits and your brain. And it’s based on real science.” The 40% Solution So what is this science of happiness, anyhow? To me, one of the most interesting findings is the now well-documented fact that we humans are notoriously lousy at predicting what will—and will not—ma ke us happy. “People think things that are unpleasant are going to be crushing for a much longer time than they are,” Simon-Thomas tells me a few days before the workshop, which she is co-leading. “They also think that pleasures, such as a new material possession or a n incredibly empowering achievement, are going to lead to long-term boosts to their well-be- ing. But what the studies show is that we get over and habituate to the things that are frightening or harmful or sad, and at the same time, we habituate to wonder- ful things.” In other words, our lowest lows and highest highs don’t last. “ Plea- sure is really important, but you can’t put it at the top of the list of aspirations.” Not only that, it turns out that the more zealously we pursue our notion of ideal happiness or hold ourselves to impossibly high standards, the more likely our efforts will backfire. “Not having exceedingly high expectations is a key to actually obtaining some measure of happiness,” says Iris Mauss, an associ- ate professor of psychology at UC Berke- ley who studies the paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. When I consider my own life, this seems ridiculously, painfully obvious. How often was I convinced to my core that the next boyfriend, the move to a different city, the great magazine assign- ment or Off-Broadway production of one of my plays would finally, once and for all, ma ke me permanently happy? Hell, even the next hot fudge sundae had the potential to turn my life-is-scar y-and- then-you-die personality into something cheery a nd light, at least tempora rily. I may not have counted on winning the lottery, but my belief in future salvation turns out to have been just as fantastical. Happy. The word alone, with its simplistic connotation of pleasure, gets us into big trouble. That’s why some resea rchers, such as University of Illi- nois happiness pioneer and psychology professor Ed Diener, have dropped the word altogether. Diener prefers “sub- jective well-being ” as a more accurate way to describe an individual’s degree of life satisfaction. Martin Seligma n, the godfather of Positive Psychology and author, most recently, of Flourish, has also shifted his focus f rom happiness to well-being, which he deconstructs into five essential elements: positive emotion, engagement in life, mea ning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. Other psychologists have teased happi- ness into two components: eudaimonic happiness, the well-being that arises from a sense of purpose or service to oth- ers; and hedonic happiness, which comes from enjoying a good meal, making love, or other passing pleasures. And though both types of happiness are essential to a balanced, contented life, a recent study conducted by Barbara Frederickson at → In a recent study, people with high levels of eudaimonic happiness— the kind that arises from a sense of purpose or service to others—had better immune response than those with high levels of hedonic, or pleasure- based, happiness. Helping is Healthy 44 mindful June 2015 happiness PHOTOGRAPH©DEBROCKE/CLASSICSTOCK/CORBIS