Is Trying to Be Happier Like Trying to Be Taller?

Debbie Cohen  |  Posted: Friday, January 3rd, 2020

In 1990, Lykken and Tellegen conducted the famous Minnesota Twins study looking at self-reported happiness levels among 2,310 sets of identical twins living separately in distinct situations. The results showed that none of the predictable sources of happiness- educational attainment, socioeconomic level, income, or marital status- affected people’s experience of well-being. The only predictive factor the study uncovered was heritability. The twins living separately expressed similar levels of happiness. In the conclusion of the study, Lykken wrote: “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and therefore is counterproductive.” 

In 1998 Daniel Gilbert published the results of several studies all showing that when we forecast ahead to how we think we will feel when something “good” or “bad” happens, something that we imagine will impact our experience of happiness like getting or not getting tenure, winning the lottery, suffering a break-up or having our candidate of choice lose or win an election, we are not accurate. We may experience a temporary upward or downward spike in well-being, but then we return to our baseline happiness level. He cites a number of reasons for why this is so including an emotional immune system that protects us from being distraught and the fact that when those imagined future events occur, there are other preoccupations competing for our attention. This baseline state has been described as the hedonic treadmill, implying that our efforts to get somewhere, to be happier, don’t get us anywhere.

 Assuming this is so, then why bother with self-improvement and steely efforts of will to be happier?  

On average, people’s happiness levels remain the same over time. Yet Positive Psychology guru Tal Ben-Shahar shares the account of the statistician who drowned in a pool with an average depth of 10 inches. There are outliers, people whose happiness levels defy their genetic propensities. We can look at the happiest people to glean what we can from their experience. The study of how people can fulfill their potential was an objective of the field of Psychology which was lost after WWII when the funding realities shifted the focus to curing mental illness almost exclusively. Abraham Maslow calls this practice of looking at the best growing tip statistics because it is at the growing tip of a plant that the greatest genetic action takes place. Studying what works rather than what needs fixing is what Positive Psychology is all about. It is the scientific study of optimal human functioning aimed at uncovering and disseminating to all the factors that allow us to thrive.

Prominent among the voices of Positive Psychology is that of Native Minnesotan Barbara Frederickson. She studies positive emotions. Her major contribution is what is known as the Broaden and Build theory. According to this theory, under the influence of positive emotions, we broaden and build our “thought-action” tendency. In other words, when we are feeling good, we are more likely to call a friend, try a new activity, help out and act in pro-social ways. We see ourselves acting in these more self-efficacious ways, which leads to more positive emotions, and we are swept up in a positively reinforcing upward spiral of positivity. According to Frederickson, it is important that we act when we are under the influence of positive emotions instead of imagining what we might do someday.

But how do we experience that positivity to initiate the virtuous cycle of good feeling? Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi writes about the experience of flow, the state we experience when there are no distracting thoughts or irrelevant feelings when there is a lack of self-consciousness and we are perfectly appropriate to the moment. Athletes call it peak performance. Flow occurs when we forget about ourselves, so absorbed are we in the task with which we are engaged. Frederickson’s description of happiness is congruent with Csikszentmihalyi’s. She refers to happiness as micro-moments of resonance as compared to rigid or neurotic insistence on happiness regardless of the situations in which we find ourselves.

Frederickson relies on loving-kindness meditation to instill positive emotions in her research subjects. Meditation is the practice of stilling the fluctuations of the mind, all of that which provide us with a sense of self. We witness the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that bring a sense of self, dis-identifying from them instead of reacting to them, a process that allows all of this stimulation to simply settle down. One enters a process of resonance with oneself, interoception, which grows regions of the brain associated with empathy, positive emotion, and improved immune system functioning. 

In short, we become happier when we forget about ourselves, so trying to become a happier self is as cheesy as the effort sounds. We can become happier, but only by tuning in moment by moment to what is happening while it is happening- around us and inside of us- with openness, curiosity and acceptance, Integrative Psychiatrist Lidia Zylowska’s very definition of mindfulness. 

Discover our upcoming positive psychology course to discover skills that will allow you to experience a truly happier, healthier life and mindset. 


Debbie Cohen is a graduate of the esteemed Applied Positive Psychology program from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught Positive Psychology at Harvard and Kripalu Yoga Center. She currently teaches mindfulness at the University of Minnesota through the Psychiatry Department.



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