What does it mean to be happy? Can we control happiness? Are we happiness junkies?
These questions and more were discussed at the 2013 Roundtable at Stanford last Friday, hosted by Katie Couric.
The five-person panel—titled “Are You Happy Now? The New Science of Happiness and Wellbeing”—featured experts in the fields of psychology, business, neuroscience and design discussing research on happiness that has recently grown in popularity.
“I thought it was an opportunity to have a really interesting, stimulating conversation with a lot of very intelligent and accomplished people,” Couric said in an interview after the event.
During the panel, Couric pointed out that, in the last month, more than 1,000 new books about happiness have appeared on Amazon.
Panelist Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph.D. ’94, a psychology professor and director of the Positive Psychology Lab at the UC-Riverside, explained that, in many parts of the western world, people have achieved a level of comfort that has enabled a focus on finding happiness.
“We are able to devote more time to researching happiness and have learned that it is something that can be measured,” Lyubomirsky said.
Measures of happiness
One of the research topics on the measure of happiness brought up by Ian Gotlibchair of the department of psychology and director of the Stanford Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory—was that people have different set points of happiness, along with set points of friendliness, aggressiveness and other such characteristics.
“This set point is influenced by genetics but also by your upbringing and environment,” he said. “When you experience events that are positive or negative, you fluctuate around this set point, but you always return to it.”
Lyubomirsky provided further evidence of the role of nature and nurture on happiness measurements.
“Studies have been done on identical twins versus fraternal twins and have found that identical twins have a more similar happiness level than fraternal twins, indicating the genetic component of happiness,” Lyubomirsky said. “But there is a component of what you do in your everyday life that affects it. If you learn happiness habits, you can raise your happiness set point.”
David Kelley M.S. ’78, founder of the global design consultancy IDEO and professor in mechanical engineering, personally tested the influence of one’s own habits on raising happiness levels when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2007.
He said that he focused on his calling in life and doing something of importance, which led to him finding meaning in his life during the medical ordeal.
“I’d recommend a diagnosis of a terminal illness [to achieve more happiness], as long as you don’t actually have one,” Kelley said. “If you’re going to try to survive the illness, you get excited about what is fun in your life.”
The flipside of happiness
The panelists also addressed the topics of depression and anxiety, focusing on the increase in rates of these illnesses over the years.
Gotlib explained that the rates are higher for younger people and that, while there are many theories as to why this is the case, there is no definitive reason.
Lyubomirsky said that she felt that there was a norm or desirability to be happy, with a lot of closeted unhappiness as a consequence.
“We shouldn’t be happy all the time,” she said. “Negative emotions have their value. They become a problem when they are chronic.”
Lyubomirsky also discussed the term “hedonic adaptation,” in which a person gradually gets used to the new things in his or her life and stops gaining the positive effects he or she originally gained.
“Appreciating what you have combats this adaptation,” she said. “You must savor what you have and put less focus on what you don’t have.”
The need for reflection
In reviewing studies and research on happiness, the panelists also offered the audience their personal tips on how to achieve happiness in their day-to-day lives.
Kelley emphasized the importance of being present and mindful in your life and awareness about the good things happening to you.
“You should celebrate the positive things so that they stick,” he said.
For Jennifer Aaker Ph.D. ’95, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, understanding how one is spending one’s time is key for gaining happiness.
“We feel like we don’t have enough time during the day and so our stress increases, and this can drive unhappiness,” she said.
“Think about how you are spending your time. What experiences are you going through? Are you present during everything? What is the nature of your relationships? Are you happy?”
Contact Josee Smith at jsmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.