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 experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including questions about what's true and not true in the field of medicine. For our July/August 2012 issue, we interviewed a University of Utah researcher about the danger of using a phone behind the wheel.
Q: I've read that driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as driving drunk. Is that true?
A: Many people can't imagine not chatting on the phone while driving. But...
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 great part."
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."