Does Love Bring Happiness? Author Says It's the Other Way Around
If you're like us, you've surely heard enough dating tips to last a lifetime. Wear your hair this way, hike up your skirt to here, go to that event. Enough already.
The advice mavens may have forgotten to remind you that to be truly ready to find love, you should probably check your own attitude. Shawn Achor, who spent more than 10 years researching the habits of the successful at Harvard University, says the root of it all is plain old inner happiness and optimism.
After reading his new book "The Happiness Advantage," MyDaily spoke to Achor about how positive thinking can impact your love life, the effect of negativity on dates and how "Tetris," of all things, can retrain your brain so you might finally find L-O-V-E.
MyDaily: Can you tell us the nutshell idea of the psychology of the "happiness advantage"? I know it's a lot more than just that annoying guy in the coffee shop who says, "Smile! You'll live longer!"
Shawn Achor: That guy is not going to live long if he keeps being that annoying. The "happiness advantage" is the discovery that your brain works significantly better when you are positive. In fact, nearly every outcome from intelligence to productivity rises when you are positive. You do have a better chance of living longer, but you are also more charismatic, create deeper social networks and are perceived as being more attractive.
In terms of dating and relationships, do you really think others can feel negativity and naturally gravitate away from you, even if on the surface your conversation is pleasant?
Definitely. We don't quote Freud much anymore, but he did get one thing right. He said we leak information through every pore. Our brains are designed to look past things we control consciously (like what we say) to look at how we unconsciously say it. Negativity leaks out through our non-verbals: our eyes, lines on our face and tone.
Your new book studies happiness and work, but have you studied dating and relationships in your research? Could you tell us about some of your findings?
Yes. I was looking to see what causes some students at Harvard to become happy and successful at the same time. We found that Harvard students, during four years of college, have less than one romantic partner on average, and only .5 sexual partners. (I don't even know what .5 sexual partners means, but I think it's the scientific equivalent of second base.) These are people with money and a good education. But just because you're smart doesn't mean you know how to create happiness or make connections. My research shows that people who happier are also are good at social relationships.
Why do you think people still resist positive psychology, and how do you show them that it works?
People are resistant because they think that happiness is a luxury item, or that it is impossible, or that happy people are less deep and less intelligent. All of those are myths. So we use science to help people understand that being positive is a necessity, especially in times of challenge, that people can change, that happiness is a work ethic and that happiness raises intelligence and ability to adapt to the world. The latter is why people actually are attracted to happy people for long-term partners.
If someone begins to put the happiness theory into practice, how long do you encourage people to test things out so they're not discouraged if this isn't instantly working for them? I imagine some people treat these ideas like a diet, and don't realize that it takes time to see real change in one's life.
I talked to one woman who told me that diets don't work for her. She told me she had tried 17 diets over the past year and none helped. If she tried 17 diets, she tried none. Our research suggests a person should try creating just one positive habit and to do it for 21 days in a row. But that doesn't mean you can't feel immediate effects. Next time you are unhappy, write down seven things you are deeply grateful for. By the time you finish, your brain will have changed how it is looking at reality.
In your research, you talk about students who felt grateful for their education frequently performing better in class. I've seen friends who've come out of bad relationships, but realized very quickly that they had dodged a big bullet – and instead of feeling sad, they were so happy you could see it. Do you think the study applies to those kinds of dating scenarios?
Absolutely. Breakups are a big change, which makes them hard to process. If you have been dating for a while, you have millions of neural connections aimed at that person. But also think back over your life. Name the three biggest moments of growth. Ninety percent of the answers to that question are wrapped around stressful situations. Positive psychology cannot tell you whether a break up was good or bad. It just is. So given that reality, what are you going to do about it? Will your brain only see how your life has deteriorated, or will you look for ways that you can enhance your life? If your brain choses the latter, not only will you recover faster, but happiness increases others' desire to date you and you can turn a bad breakup into something that causes growth to make a future relationship better.
You talk about inoculating against stress and negativity as a way to truly be happier. In a love context, what exercises would you suggest to help start changing your outlook?
Practice every day being grateful by writing down three things you are happy about that are different every day. Also, journal for five minutes a day about one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours. Then when something goes badly, you can look back at all the things you are grateful for and all the meaningful moments of your life and realize that the negative thing is only one part of a much bigger life.
If you're beginning to get jaded, how can change your mindset?
If you are jaded, you don't think that happiness is possible or you think your behavior doesn't matter. Both of those are false. But the more you think them, the more your brain gets stuck at negative. Every time you have that thought, try to do a happiness booster (watch a funny YouTube clip, email an old friend) or do something to remind you that your behavior matters (exercise, make a friend at Starbucks, make a Match.com profile). Also, remember that negative things are local and temporary: This, too, will pass if you keep trying.
What do you say to people who think that "if only I were dating someone, I would be happy"?
That is my favorite question. It's the same problem as someone at work who thinks, if I get into that college, or get that promotion, or make a million dollars, then I'll be happier. First, it's not true. Look at all the people who get those things and are still not happy. Is every person in a relationship happy? No. If you are unhappy out of a relationship, you're still going to have a negative mindset in a relationship. But here's the exciting part. The Happiness Advantage research shows that the formula works the other way. The more positive and happy you are, the more likely you will be to date someone. When you believe your behavior matters (optimism), you keep putting yourself out there, and people find happy people more attractive. That means work on your positive mindset first, and let the success rates rise second.
Can you talk about the "Tetris Effect"?
If you play Tetris for five hours, you will look around the world trying to make straight lines like in the game. One participant tried to rearrange bread at the supermarket to make straight lines. If you view the world through one pattern, your brain gets stuck. If you scan the world for all the things you don't have (maybe a person to date) and all the negative, your brain has no resources left for seeing the good and finding ways to a better reality. In other words, get stuck in a positive "Tetris Effect," looking for the good.
If you apply the Tetris Effect to dating, would it encourage overlooking flaws in the truly flawed, or simply focusing on the better parts of a situation, to in turn attract a similar response in one's self?
Optimism must be rational. Irrational optimists don't put on seatbelts. And they stay in bad relationships. Those are both bad. Rational optimists don't put on rose-colored glasses. They try to see reality for how it is, then they choose to make behavior and mindset changes to make a better world. If there are serious flaws, fix them or get out. Rational optimists don't stay in bad jobs or bad relationships.
I've gone on dates where I've been grilled with questions and the guy did everything but ask to see my dental records to find out if I'd be an ideal mate since he was on a mission for a wife. That was all instead of relaxing and just getting to know each other. For daters like that, do you think your "Zorro Circle" principle would be the best way to get the desired results?
I always bring my dental records and bank statements on first dates, just for that very reason. Seriously, having principles is good, but if one of your principles is being anxious about problems before making a connection with a person, you need to change your mindset. The "Zorro Circle" says to fight in the smallest circle you can be successful in. Once you've been successful, you can expand the circle. In this context, the goal of a first couple dates is to create a connection. If you try to determine a wedding date, your circle is too big and you will get frustrated.
Can you talk about how social support can help people in relationships and those who are still looking?
Social support is the greatest predictor of your happiness and success during a time of challenge. If your challenge is finding a date or a relationship, then you need to invest in your social support network. That means making sure you have deep connections with your co-workers, family members and friends. If you do that (and still leave time for dating -- some people go overboard), then not only will you be more confident and happy, but once you're in a relationship, you're more likely to sustain a good one.
Have you ever had positivity, or lack thereof, affect your own romantic life?
I'm single and never been married. ... But I do know, based on this research, to be happy where I am, and then when I find the girl of my dreams, we'll be more likely to create a happy relationship.
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