True Happiness Lies in Deeply Held Goals, Resiliency, Discipline

True Happiness Lies in Deeply Held Goals, Resiliency, Discipline

Experts try to unlock mysteries of happiness You can’t buy it, experts say. Pursuing goals, not goods is a key to true satisfaction

By Bonnie Miller Rubin and Jeremy Manier

Chicago Tribune reporters

October 5, 2008

Americans have seen their retirement savings shrivel, home equity evaporate and job security vanish. The only numbers zooming upward seem to be gas and food prices.

It may look like there’s nothing to smile about, but that shouldn’t stop us, said Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has been studying happiness for more than a quarter-century. Here’s what he wants you to know: That disappearing 401(k) balance? It’s no more a barometer of sadness than winning the lottery guarantees life satisfaction. It’s all a matter of perspective.

“There are people who have little money and are quite happy . . . and then there are people who feel poor making $150,000 a year,” Diener said. “If we ratchet down some of our aspirations and expectations, we can find contentment-even in a slowing economy.”

He is no blithe guru spray-painting smiley faces along Wall Street.

Researchers like Diener are trying to convey what philosophers have long written: True happiness lies in the pursuit of deeply held goals, not in fleeting pleasures and possessions.

We intuitively understand the common-sense distinction between short- term pleasure and long-term happiness. Research suggests the brain also processes those feelings differently-though exactly how the mind creates abiding happiness is unclear.

Diener is co-author, with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, of the new book “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.” He is part of the positive psychology movement that started about two decades ago and bypasses the Freud model of disease and dysfunction, focusing instead on emotional hardiness.

In their view, psychological wealth includes relationships, spirituality (“not necessarily religion . . . but the feeling you are connected to something larger than yourself”), physical health and a sense of engagement.

What separates those with psychological wealth from miserable peers is their ability to adjust. “That means controlling what is controllable, . . . diversifying your stocks, then returning to the areas of your life that are going well, such as friends and family,”

he said. “It means making a conscious decision to be resilient.”

It takes strong character to find happiness in the face of adversity, but scientists often have found that aspect too vague a topic to study. Understanding how the brain processes raw feelings of desire and pleasure is far easier. Most creatures seek pleasure in some way.

Pleasure motivates us to seek food, sex and a multitude of things that ensure the survival of an individual or species.

“There’s an enormous evolutionary advantage to getting pleasure from these things,” said Martin Cassell, a professor at the University of Iowa. “The more long-term aspects of what causes happiness are much less well understood.”

Cassell said he believes a key brain area for both pleasure and long- term happiness is the insular cortex, a region buried under the flaps and folds toward the front of the brain. Also called the insula, the region has been linked to sensations of joy, disgust and pain and even to out-of-body experiences. But beyond joy, a hallmark of human beings is the ability to forgo immediate gratification for the sake of some deeper contentment. That aspect of happiness takes willpower- another big subject neuroscientists have found difficult to study.

“We have no precise sense of what willpower means in the brain, or why some people are better at it than others,” said Todd Braver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis.

Braver’s team is studying how the brain area called the prefrontal cortex is involved in long-term decision-making. They want to understand how the anticipation of a reward far off in the future- such as the increased satisfaction of a fulfilling but low-paying job- can sometimes overrule the enticement of short-term pleasure.

The mysteries of human behavior and happiness have long dominated Diener family dinner conversations. Diener, 62, also known as “Dr.

Happy,” had ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of happiness during his early-marriage years in Champaign, when dining out meant a

$1 entree with his wife, Carol, also a psychologist.

Three of their five children went into the family business, including Robert, a psychologist and lecturer at Portland State University. The father and son have traveled all over the world, collecting data on well-being from tens of thousands of subjects in more than 100 countries.

Whether in the gold markets of Dubai or the Australian outback, the scientists have learned happiness goes beyond genes and circumstances. We require enough material wealth to be self- sufficient, the psychologists believe, but the levels of contentment do not dramatically increase after our needs are met. While there is a spike after a major acquisition-like a new car-the euphoria over leather seats doesn’t last.

The same is true with setbacks: Watching one’s nest egg dwindle is enough to pull anyone into a deep hole, but a year later, people typically rebound.Some people find happiness in escaping the seesaw of fleeting gains and losses. Steven Biedermann, 45, an investment banker, was living the good life in a Gold Coast condo with all the requisite perks-but he longed for meaning, not bigger bonuses.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “That was the match that lit up a bundle of kindling that had been piling up for years,”

he said. The next fall, Biedermann sold everything and joined the Peace Corps. He headed to Kiribati in the Central Pacific, swapping the condo for a small stick hut and swanky restaurants for fish and rice. He grew closer to his Christian faith.

Upon his return, he was hired to manage the Chicago Public Schools investment portfolio-a way to make use of his skills, but with a loftier purpose. Though he earns less than he did his first year after graduating from DePaul University in 1986, Biedermann said he’s fulfilled. “It’s about serving others, not being served. That’s where my happiness comes from.”

Copyright ê_Ô© 2008, Chicago Tribune