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Common Reading 2021: Debunking the Myths of Happiness by Jason Marsh

Debunking the Myths of Happiness — Jason Marsh

"Debunking the Myths of Happiness" is an interview between Jason Marsh and Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of The Myths of Happiness. The interview discusses the ways that happiness has been mythologized to suggest that some actions, like marriage, will result in life-long happiness. Instead, Lyubomirsky suggests that hedonic adaptation, humans' ability to get used to changes in their lives, can cause us to stop paying attention to or appreciating things that once made us happy. Because of this, happiness is a life-long project that must be actively cultivated.

About the Author

Jason Marsh is the founding editor in chief of Greater Good Science Center and the GGSC’s executive director. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Utne Reader, among other publications.

About the Interviewee

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a Russian-born American professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the bestseller The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a book of strategies backed by scientific research that can be used to increase happiness.

Discussion Questions

1. How does human resilience affect your perception of adaptability? Is resilience a form of adaptability? Why or why not?

2. Lyubomirsky believes that the search for hedonic pleasure only ends in pain because you can never reach the previous high of the last time you were happy. Instead Lyubomirsky suggests that developing deeper meaning and purpose in life leads to longer-term happiness. What are some ways you have developed meaning and purpose in your life? How has it contributed to your happiness? 

Class Activity

Make a list of 3 to 5 things, places, or activities that bring you happiness. Then, share with a partner and discuss the similarities and differences between your two lists.

Listen to the Interview

Introduction — Theresa Lopez

Human adaptability is typically a good thing. Unfortunately, we adapt to positive circumstances just as much as to negative and novel ones. There’s power in identifying this phenomenon. We tend to think lifelong happiness will be unlocked through achieving various milestones as we move through adulthood. Sometimes, outsized expectations turn those milestones into emotional land mines, steer us to make toxic decisions, and narrow our focus on certain aspects of our lives. For example, a student who sees earning a 4.0 as an important accomplishment may emphasize earning perfect grades to the detriment of other important achievements, like making new friends and creating a support network.

Sonja Lyubomirsky researches the dimensions of and misconceptions about happiness, as well as the efficacy of simple intentional activities to boost well-being and improve decision making. Here, Dr. Lyubomirsky discusses her work with Jason Marsh of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. As you read or listen, think about how these misconceptions may shape your expectations around the transition to college. The upside of hedonic adaptation–the process of becoming accustomed to a circumstance such that its emotional effects diminish over time–is that we generally adapt better to setbacks and negative experiences than we predict. It’s common to go through challenges in transitioning to college and overcome them. What practical strategies or shifts in mindset could help you turn college lemons, like a low test grade, into lemonade?


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