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Around the Columns

Be of good cheer

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During a five-day hike in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness in 2009, members of Kennon Sheldon’s party found a happy-face balloon that had lost its helium over the Wallowa Mountains. “They jokingly made me wear it since I am Dr. Happiness,” Sheldon says.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy several hundred books on how to get happy. Happiness might sound like a slippery concept, but scientists can reliably measure it, says Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences, who gave the 21st Century Corps of Discovery lecture on Sept. 1, 2010, at Jesse Hall. The annual lecture highlights the work of top faculty at Mizzou.

Researchers define happy people as those who are satisfied with life and who have more positive moods than negative ones, and they’ve found some key factors that shape well-being.

Decades of research by Sheldon and others have found that genetics exert about half of the influence on people’s dispositions. Some people are naturally cheerful, and they will likely have a higher happiness baseline than those predisposed to melancholy. The latter group is not doomed to feeling dismal all the time, Sheldon says, but they’ll have to work harder than their more content counterparts to get glad.

About 10 percent of happiness comes from circumstances, such as wealth, age, sex or appearance, Sheldon says. People might get a short-term boost from buying a new car, but that soon fades through a phenomenon he calls “hedonic adaptation,” or getting used to things and taking them for granted.

Fortunately, a big chunk of what determines happiness are chosen activities. People who can choose what they do and who choose wisely influence about 40 percent of their own well-being. “This actually gives us hope. We can do something about what we do.”

Here’s Sheldon’s punch list for happiness:

  • Change what you do, not what you have. Then vary how you do it. Variety is the spice of happiness, Sheldon says. Give yourself a steady stream of new positive experiences, which could include serving other people. “Helping others helps us,” he says. “Join a group, start volunteering, set an important new goal for yourself.”
  • Pursue the right goals, for the right reasons. “Goals are the way we time travel into the future that we want,” Sheldon says. “You can drift, or set goals and get to where you want to be.” The goals should be things you do out of interest, not pressure, and they should express your identity and beliefs.
  • Be yourself. Your “social self” is what you are like at a gathering among strangers, and your “unguarded self” is your profile around loved ones you trust. “The closer these are, the happier you’ll be,” Sheldon says.
  • Balance your time. Do different things throughout the day that balance work with other parts of life.
  • Manage life so you feel autonomous, competent and connected. In other words, Sheldon says, “Do what you choose, do it well, and connect with others. You can think of these things as psychological vitamins; if you get them, you thrive.” — Dale Smith