A popular greeting card attributes this quote to Henry David Thoreau:
"Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude
you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit
softly on your shoulder."
With all due respect to the author of Walden, that just isn't so,
according to a growing number of psychologists. You can choose to be
happy, they say. You can chase down that elusive butterfly and get it to sit on
your shoulder. How? In part, by simply making the effort to monitor the
workings of your mind.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our July/August 2012 issue, we asked WebMD's mental health expert, Patricia Farrell, PhD, about diminishing road stress on long-distance car trips.
Q: I'm traveling cross-country this summer and anticipating long hours in the car. What can I do to stay safe and sane?
A: Driving long distance presents all sorts of potential hazards. The trick? Plan your trip carefully...
Research has shown that your talent for happiness is, to a large degree,
determined by your genes. Psychology professor David T. Lykken, author of
Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says that "trying to be happier is
like trying to be taller." We each have a "happiness set point," he argues, and
move away from it only slightly.
And yet, psychologists who study happiness -- including Lykken -- believe we
can pursue happiness. We can do this by thwarting negative emotions such as
pessimism, resentment, and anger. And we can foster positive emotions, such as
empathy, serenity, and especially gratitude.
Happiness Strategy # 1: Don't Worry, Choose Happy
The first step, however, is to make a conscious choice to boost your
happiness. In his book, The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930,
the philosopher Bertrand Russell had this to say: "Happiness is not, except in
very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit. ...
Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of
the gods, and in this achievement, effort, both inward and outward, must play a
Today, psychologists who study happiness heartily agree. The intention to be
happy is the first of The 9 Choices of Happy People listed by authors
Rick Foster and Greg Hicks in their book of the same name.
"Intention is the active desire and commitment to be happy," they write.
"It's the decision to consciously choose attitudes and behaviors that lead to
happiness over unhappiness."
Tom G. Stevens, PhD, titled his book with the bold assertion, You Can
Choose to Be Happy. "Choose to make happiness a top goal," Stevens tells
WebMD. "Choose to take advantage of opportunities to learn how to be happy. For
example, reprogram your beliefs and values. Learn good self-management skills,
good interpersonal skills, and good career-related skills. Choose to be in
environments and around people that increase your probability of happiness. The
persons who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth
and their own personal growth primary values."
In short, we may be born with a happiness "set point," as Lykken calls it,
but we are not stuck there. Happiness also depends on how we manage our
emotions and our relationships with others.