Looking for love? First stop: happiness

Study shows optimism often leads to romantic success
Tuesday, February 14, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:49 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Most people want to fall in love and be happy. And many of us believe that finding love will naturally lead to happiness — in that order.

“We have this idea that if you find the right job or person, you’ll become happy,” says Laura King, a professor of psychological services at MU. “But what if it’s the other way around? What if happy people are more likely to find that?”

A new study by King, Sonya Lyubomirsky at the University of California-Riverside and Ed Diener at the University of Illinois says just that: Being happy means people are more likely to be attractive to potential mates and employers.

The study, based on past research covering more than 275,000 people and 225 research papers, found that happy people are more successful in social relationships and that they are able to maintain longer, more satisfying partnerships.

So, does happiness help love last?

It seems to be a no-brainer. But the study — published late last year in The Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association — is unique in that it looks at happiness not only as an outcome but as a resource to be tapped.

King says that she and her fellow researchers got the idea for the study while attending a conference together. They started talking about all the research out there that might support their theory that happiness can help lead to success.

And King’s own motivations for doing the study are personal as well.

“In academia there has been this general bias that happy people are stupid or less intellectually complex,” King says. “But I’m a happy person and I became quite frustrated with that label. I’m excited about approaches that look at happiness as productive. If happiness is so bad for you than why do we all want to be happy?”

In a nutshell, the study says that when something called “positive affect,” which King describes simply as good moods, is present, a person is more likely to gain success. This success applies to many areas of life, from work to social relationships. The strongest correlation in the study is the one that links positive affect to sociability.

“Negative moods are unique to the individual, they set us apart,” King says. “Happy people are more a part of humanity, they are more likely to meet and interact with others. Depression or unhappiness cuts people off from the things that may make them feel better, like being with others and enjoying themselves.”

King points to the adage that it always seems to be when we stop looking for love and are content with our lives that love seems to find us.

That was true for Christine and Tim Durrett, who have been married for 3 1/2 years. Both Harvard graduates are studying for their doctorates at MU, Christine in psychology and Tim in biochemistry.

“I was moving forward in my life,” Christine says. “Things were going really well, and I wasn’t looking to date and here he (Tim) came out of nowhere.”

The study says that it is at times like these, when one is already pleased with life, that connecting to others may be easier.

“People have long been selling this idea that happiness comes from within,” King says. “Your mom told you, you must be happy with yourself first. Yet many people live life with the attitude, ‘Yes, I’m miserable now, but when I get x, y and z, I’ll be happy.’ That’s not really a great way to live your life.”

But, the study is clear in pointing out that being a happy person does not mean that one is always happy. When bad things happen, happy people react accordingly, because negative feelings can sometimes be helpful.

“If a person is open to the negative as well as the positive, they can make changes when necessary,” King says.

It may be this ability of happy people to better and more creatively cope with the bad that leads to longer and happier relationships. King says the study found a strong link between happiness and the ability to face problems rather than avoid them.

Andy Knoop, a licensed psychologist, a clinical assistant professor at MU and a former marriage and family counselor, echoes that idea.

“Marriage is like being on a sailboat,” Knoop says. “If you enjoy making constant readjustments, watching the weather patterns, getting the wind in your sails and do not get frustrated with the effort, then it helps determine how enjoyable the ride is.”

However, Knoop is quick to point out that successful marriages are attributed to a host of factors not easily pinned down. He says relationships break up based on many of those factors, usually due to a combination of actions and personality.

People who would call themselves unhappy are not necessarily doomed in relationships, Knoop says. “Most importantly, it is about the match that is made.”

As for the Durretts: Christine calls herself an optimist while Tim maintains he is a pessimist. They say that most of their arguments arise from taking themselves too seriously and that humor is their best weapon for staying happy. However they arrived there, they say that a happy marriage helps them maintain perspective.

“Having a good marriage makes work better and having a good work environment makes home better,” Christine says.

King maintains that some people simply have a happy temperament while many are induced into a good mood by things they do or things that happen to them. She says that in general, people are just happy when they get to experience pleasure along the way.

“It is OK to want happiness,” King says. “When people take a job they ask about pay and vacation but rarely do they ask, ‘Do people enjoy this job, will I enjoy this job?’ What better reason is there than you enjoy it?”

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