by Mina Simhai

Two pirates walked into a party and danced ‘til 1:00 am. Sonja Lyubomirsky would have been proud!

Why? Because those two pirates (me and my husband) have been married for eight years and are introducing some novelty into their relationship. According to Lyubomirsky, novelty is a powerful antidote to “hedonic adaptation” or, in plain English, the fact that we get used to each other over the years. In her latest book, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does, Lyubomirsky explains why many big events cause only small or temporary spikes in happiness, and how we can be happy even when things don’t go our way.

Satisfaction or Settling?
I found some of Lyubomirsky’s views on relationships uninspiring. For instance, she writes about “the naturally occurring decay of passion and joy experienced early in marriage” and concludes that “even the happiest marriages cannot maintain their initial satisfaction level, and only with a great deal of energy and commitment can you approach that initial level.” I get it. She’s trying to normalize things. This way, we won’t think there’s something wrong when we experience what’s common to most people. Give up your unrealistic expectations now, she advises, so you’re not disappointed later. But positive psychology is about analyzing what works best and figuring out how to apply it to our lives. Positive psychology is not about the law of averages.

Lyubomirsky does offer research-based tools—the importance of appreciation, variety, surprise, celebrating your partner’s good news, partner affirmation, and touch—that can slow the adaptation. But, to me, “slowing the adaptation” feels a bit like settling. I want to learn from couples who flourish instead.

Setting Self-Concordant Goals
I found Lyubomirsky’s section on work more compelling. If we want to be more satisfied with our careers, we should ask ourselves, “Does my career meet my needs?” rather than comparing ourselves with others. Social comparisons affect not only our perceptions of ourselves, but also our mood and emotional well-being. When we measure ourselves by personal standards rather than our neighbor’s successes, we’re evaluating from a place of worthiness and integrity rather than a place of lack. Asking this question might save many of us from unnecessary job changes—which lead to only a temporary spike in our well-being: Within a year, we are back to our pre-job-change happiness levels.

What happens if I ditch social comparisons but don’t measure up to my personal standards? I can use this data to set and wholeheartedly pursue self-concordant goals, goals that feel inherently interesting. We want to strive toward goals that are “realistic, flexible, valued by our cultures, authentic, not materialistic, and not impinging negatively on other aspects of our lives,” Lyubomirsky writes. We can set goals for ourselves, in addition to pursuing goals imposed on us by our employers. Pursuing other people’s goals makes it less likely that we will become happier, even when we’re successful.

I’ve been there. Before becoming a pirate, I was a corporate lawyer. The booty I sought was closing deals and helping my clients finance their business ventures. I was earning a good living, achieving the goals that others set for me, and giving so many hours to my job that I spent little time dreaming up more fulfilling goals, let alone pursuing them. I learned firsthand that striving toward goals set by bosses and clients does little to bolster our happiness, as opposed to striving toward goals in line with our values, that jive with who we are and who we want to be, which does contribute to our well-being.

I wised up. At my next job, I spearheaded a legal intern program and got involved in business initiatives that I found interesting. Yes, I switched jobs—but many of us don’t need to. We can stay where we are, set self-concordant goals, and turn our current jobs into careers that meet our needs.

Awareness and Optimism
Lyubomirsky’s goal of transforming “crisis points into straightforward passages of life” is something many of us can benefit from. This book helped me see how so much of our suffering is universal, and the result of what we choose to focus on. Lyubomirsky’s insights bring home a key CiPP learning: Happiness doesn’t just happen to the lucky few; it’s something we can build in our lives through our everyday choices.

The first step is awareness. Lyubomirsky identifies beliefs we might have about happiness that are actually making us less likely to find happiness. For instance, the myth that I will be happy when I get a great job (or get married, have kids, own a house, get promoted). She points out that it’s a fallacy to look for happiness outside ourselves. She also teaches that we are much more resilient than we realize. That’s why awful events from which we think we could never recover (divorce, a bad diagnosis, bankruptcy) affect our long-term happiness levels less than we think.

Lyubomirsky stresses that cultivating optimism helps us become more confident, motivated, and goal focused. So how do we become more optimistic? She suggests writing down first the present problem or challenge, then our initial interpretation of that problem/challenge, and, finally, our positive reinterpretation. Optimism is not about rose-colored glasses; it’s about seeing opportunities in the difficulties.

This pirate is choosing optimism and self-concordant goals. Rather than telling my mate/boss/friends/colleagues to “walk the plank” when inevitable challenges arise, I will remember that we are all more resilient than we think. Like a treasure map, that resilience can help us plan our routes, select our tools, do the work, and uncover the happiness awaiting us.

Mateys, get your maps (and books) and join us on Monday, December 7, at 7:30 pm EST, for our monthly WBI Book Discussion meeting. We’ll be joined by special guest Dr. Margarita Tarragona, an international teacher of positive psychology, clinical psychologist, coach, organizational consultant, and board member for the International Positive Psychology Association. Learn more about Margarita.

You can also join the online book discussion here.

Dial in: 323-476-3997
Conference ID: 218555#

Learn more about WBI’s virtual book discussions.

Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and currently serves as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is a recovering lawyer turned yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.