Book review: The Myths of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:46pm

The Myths of Happiness

by Sonja Lyubomirsky


This book on everyday psychology is refreshing because it goes against the fashion for woolly thinking to argue that sustained rational thought is the best method to discover the solutions to problems arising from marriage, children and work.

Rather than using intuition to decide on a course of action - for instance, leaving or staying with a spouse - Sonja Lyubomirsky says we should ignore it completely, as it will lead us down the wrong path. What is needed is systematic reflection on what actions we should take. Even then, she says, it's more likely our second or third thoughts on the matter will lead to a better course of action than our first.

The Myths of Happiness does not contain much information about relationship problems and how to deal with them; it's useful in that every idea and course of action is supported by scientific research data - usually by asking questions of groups of volunteers - and the results weighed against others. This gives Myths a rare credibility among self-help books, a genre which is generally full of unsubstantiated waffle and conjecture.

The theme of this book is, why do we not feel happy in situations that, before they have occurred, we think will make us happy? Lyubomirsky covers such topics as why we do not feel as happy as we thought we would after getting married, why parenthood does not always make us happy, and why we get bored with a job we thought we would find exciting. It also looks at topics such as how we can be happy and single, and how we can be happy without much money.

A foundation for understanding Lyubomirsky's argument is the concept of "hedonic adaptation". This means that "human beings have the remarkable capacity to grow habituated or inured to most life changes". So the partner who seemed so exciting before marriage can seem humdrum after it, and the job that was so hard to win becomes as boring as the one before.

Hedonic adaptation is rooted in the human psyche, Lyubomirsky says, and occurs in everybody to a greater or lesser degree. It may make us easily bored, but it also gives us the power to cope with events such as the loss of a loved one. The author details methods to manage hedonic adaptation, but says the main panacea comes in understanding that it is a normal part of everyone's psychological make-up.

There is a flaw in her reasoning: happiness, unlike pain or grief, is a state of mind that neuroscientists, and even philosophers, have failed to define.

Functional MRI scans can show that activities in the brain correspond to certain emotions - fear, for instance - but no brain states have been found to correspond to a subject's claims of happiness. So when respondents in Lyubomirsky's experiments answer questionnaires about how happy they are, it is not clear to what mental states they are actually referring to. This is not good science.