University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, recalls being "almost blind" until a few years ago. Then she had LASIK eye surgery, and for the first time since she was 12 years old, she could see perfectly. Lyubomirsky was ecstatic.
"It was completely miraculous," she recalled at a Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology)-sponsored session at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.
But after a week, Lyubomirsky found herself taking her vision for granted, and her elation faded.
Lyubomirsky's experience illustrates the mind's ability to quickly adjust to both positive and negative changes, she said. This tendency puts people on a "hedonic treadmill," where they are always seeking out short-term mood boosts, she said. As a result, increasing "chronic happiness" is extremely difficult, said Lyubomirsky.
But despite the challenge, the quest for increasing long-term happiness is not futile, she noted. Lyubomirsky's research suggests that it can be done through conscious efforts, such as pausing to count your blessings, performing kind acts and reframing situations in a positive light.
"If we assume that it is meaningful and important to pursue happiness, then it is crucial to find out how it may be accomplished," she said.
In a 2005 Review of General Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 2, pages 111-131) article, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues asked psychology undergraduates to complete a survey that included a happiness index, as well as measures of gratitude and thankfulness. Then, over the course of the following six weeks, the participants wrote down five things they were grateful for, either once a week or three times a week.
On a follow-up test, the researchers found that the participants who counted their blessings once a week expressed more gratitude and thankfulness and rated themselves significantly happier than before.
"It's hard to feel envy, greed, or bitterness when you're grateful," Lyubomirsky explained.
However, both the control group and the three-times-a-week groups' well-being actually decreased overall-perhaps because the study was conducted during a university exam period.
In another study in the same article, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues instructed participants to perform five "acts of kindness" per week for six weeks. One group carried out the acts in a single day, another group performed them throughout the week and another served as a control. The researchers also measured the participants' happiness measures before and after the six-week trial.
They found that students who performed five acts of kindness during a single day experienced a significant increase in well-being, while the other two groups did not. Lyubomirsky suggested that because many of the acts students performed were minor, like "offering to take a friend to the airport" or "serving as designated driver for a night at a party," spreading them out throughout the week may have made them less distinguishable from participants' normal behavior.
"Kindness can jump-start a whole cascade of positive social consequences," Lyubomirsky said. "Helping others leads people to like you, to appreciate you [and] to offer gratitude."
Finding a key to happiness
Lyubomirsky and her University of Missouri-Columbia collaborator Ken Sheldon, PhD, are now using a five-year National Institutes of Health grant to conduct longitudinal studies that examine long-term happiness gains. The studies aim to build on her research indicating that intentional acts, like counting your blessings, can increase happiness over the short-term.
She also aims to investigate whether the same techniques that produced sustainable gains could be applied to combat the symptoms of major depression.
Ultimately, however, whether long-term changes produce significant results depends on the motivation of the individual, she said.
"Following through on new intentions or activities is not necessarily easy," she said. "We assume that happiness-increasing strategies can be effectively pursued only with concerted, consistent commitment and effort."
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