COLUMBIA — The Declaration of Independence states we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, but MU psychology professor Kennon Sheldon asks whether it’s all in vain.
Speaking to a crowd Wednesday afternoon in Jesse Auditorium at MU's annual Corps of Discovery lecture, Sheldon said he has made it his life’s work to answer that question with science, something he says most happiness books don’t try.
- Change what you do, not what you have.
- Pursue the right goals, for the right reasons. “Goals are the way we time travel into the future that we want,” Sheldon said.
- Be yourself. Your “social character” should match your “unguarded self.”
- Balance your time. The more evenly you distribute your activities and obligations the happier you’ll be.
- Do what you choose, do it well and connect with others. “You can think of them as psychological vitamins, if you get them, you thrive,” Sheldon said.
“We have this expectation of an upward spiral of happiness,” Sheldon said. “Are we delusional, are we tilting at windmills, are we wasting our time?”
In other words, is there a way to boost our happiness and get it to stay there?
Sheldon, the university's seventh lecturer in the series, is a nationally recognized scholar in the field of positive psychology, which focuses on well-being and happiness. It’s a field, he says, Americans are particularly obsessed with.
“I found 836 books on happiness on an Amazon search today,” he told the group of more than 200 people.
But the study of happiness is not a waste of time, he said. In fact, he said researchers are getting closer to identifying the exact factors that contribute to a person’s sense of well-being.
Sheldon said he believes personal measures of happiness come down to three factors: genetics, one’s situation in life and his or her chosen activities. Taken together, they form the foundation for a scientific measure of happiness.
Genetics, Sheldon said, influence 50 percent of a person's happiness. If a person is predisposed to melancholy, he or she is going to have a lower baseline for happiness than a person with a naturally lighthearted personality.
“I’m not sure that it’s cause for pessimism,” he said of those with lower baselines. “It means it’s going to be hard to get up and stay up.”
But personal circumstances, such as demographics or appearance, have just a 10 percent influence on happiness, Sheldon said, despite the importance society places on these factors. That’s due to a phenomenon he calls “hedonic adaptation,” or the idea that humans can adapt to almost any situation.
In other words, Sheldon said, you have to notice something for it to make you happier — or sadder. If you get used to something that once made you happy, you eventually take it for granted and it ceases to have the same effect.
Luckily, Sheldon said there are ways to boost your happiness and get it to stay there. The third factor, chosen activities, accounts for 40 percent of a person’s sense of happiness.
“This gives us hope,” he said. “We can do something about it. We can change what we do. It might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people think a quick fix for happiness is to go out and buy something. Change what you do, not what you have.”
But the kind of activity also matters, he said.
Sheldon also said outer appearances of success such as money, fame and beauty, pale in comparison to happiness gained from helping others and fostering relationships.
Columbia resident Libby Gill, 81, agrees. She said much of her happiness stems from spending time with her family, being in good health and being in nature. But she said she also believes happiness is ultimately a matter of personal choice.
“I believe what Abraham Lincoln said,” Gill said. “Most people are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Walter Bargen, an MU employee and Missouri’s first poet laureate from 2008 to 2009, said happiness is often a matter of work-life balance.
“After all these years, I’m still chasing after happiness. It doesn’t bode well,” the 62-year old said, laughing.