Sunday, June 25, 2006
In the classic "Peanuts" comic strip, the path to finding joy in life seems clear: Happiness is a warm puppy (at least according to Charles M. Schultz's 1962 book.)
But if you're at all familiar with Charlie Brown -- that bald, depressive kid who can't kick a football -- you probably suspect there's more to it than that. After all, if happiness is a warm puppy, then -- good grief! -- why is Charlie Brown such a downer?
Turns out, warm puppies are only one part of happiness. According to positive psychology experts, the formula for happiness can be expressed in, of all things, a mathematical equation.
Got your pencil sharpened? Voila, happiness = S + C + V. Huh? Let us explain.
In this equation, "S" is your biological disposition toward being happy, aka your "happiness set point." "C" represents the conditions in which you live, some of which are fixed (like sex or age) and some of which you can change (like the relationships you establish). Finally, "V" stands for the voluntary activities that you engage in: work, vacations, meditation, exercise -- even playing with warm puppies.
Clear as mud? Let's see if we can break it down even further.
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THE HAPPINESS SET POINT
Which would make you happier: winning millions of dollars in the lottery or becoming paralyzed from the neck down?
Think the answer is obvious? Not so fast: Though the mega-winner's megawatt smile when he picks up his payoff is likely genuine (as are the accident victim's tears), an oft-cited 1978 study detailed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the effects of life-changing events on happiness levels found that within a year, both groups tend to return to their base line level of happiness.
In other words, if you aren't happy right now, don't bother playing Powerball, because the immediate rush of a big-screen TV and a shiny new car only lasts so long.
"We all have a biological set point that predisposes us to happiness," explains Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" (Basic Books, 2005). Studies of twins indicate that the rose-colored glasses we associate with happy people may be as genetically determined as the reading glasses donned by farsighted folks; some people, it seems, are just born happier than others.