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Journalist Katie Couric moderates the 2013 Stanford Roundtable

The 2013 Roundtable at Stanford, 'Are You Happy Now? The New Science of Happiness and Wellbeing,' took place at Maples Pavilion on Friday. Journalist Katie Couric moderated the event. (Photo: Ian Terpin)

Stanford 2013 Roundtable panelists demystify the secrets of happiness

The Stanford 2013 Roundtable, "Are You Happy Now? The New Science of Happiness and Wellbeing," convened a panel of psychologists, neuroscientists and business experts to discuss what makes people happy. Their message: Pursuing meaning in one's life is the key to establishing sustained happiness.

Highlights of the Stanford Roundtable

In a recent study that ranked 50 countries by overall happiness, the United States slotted in at 23rd. This finding might seem incongruous with the American dream: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But that rhetoric – the constant pursuit of happiness – might be what's holding the United States back.

On Friday, Oct. 18, the 2013 Stanford Roundtable, "Are You Happy Now?" convened five experts to discuss what happiness is and why many Americans are unhappy. The panelists also discussed simple, synergistic strategies that people can employ to promote long-lasting, meaningful happiness.

Katie Couric, journalist and host of the daytime talk show Katie, moderated the discussion. Experts included Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; Firdaus Dhabhar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford; Ian H. Gotlib, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory; David Kelley, founder of IDEO and head of the d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) at Stanford; and Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and a 1994 Stanford PhD graduate.

Preoccupied with pursuing happiness

Couric opened the discussion by mentioning that a thousand books on the subject of happiness were published on Amazon.com in just the past year, highlighting Americans' preoccupation with defining and finding happiness.

Lyubomirsky suggested that advances in Western culture have brought people to a state of comfort with their lives that allows them the time to indulge questions like, "Am I happy?" The billion-dollar industries of self-help books and motivational speakers in America reflect Americans' preoccupation with happiness.

"If you're constantly asking yourself, 'Am I happy yet?' that can actually backfire and make you less happy," Lyubomirsky warned.

Expectations vs. reality

With depression and suicide in the United States on the rise, it's important to suss out what makes people unhappy. Simply the expectation that one should be ecstatically happy at all times is a major contributing factor, Aaker said, adding that many people chase that high by always acquiring new things: relationships, jobs, smartphones, to name only a few.

Ian TerpinRoundtable panelists: Firdaus Dhabhar, Jennifer Aaker, Sonja Lyubomirsky, David Kelley and Ian Gotlib.

Roundtable panelists: Firdaus Dhabhar, Jennifer Aaker, Sonja Lyubomirsky, David Kelley and Ian Gotlib.

The panelists agreed that appreciating what you have is a good antidote to the grass-is-greener effect. Focusing on achievements, rather than material objects, is another habit of happy people, Lyubomirsky said.

But happiness is more than the singular, high-intensity emotional rush that one feels after a first kiss or finishing a marathon. Aaker characterized the transformation of happiness over a lifetime as excitement, satisfaction, balance, savoring and contentment.

Stress is another factor holding people back, according to Dhabhar. Long-term stress and worry beget more stress and worry, sapping happiness. Aaker added that chronic stress is a result of a "time famine" in the United States, where people feel that they simply do not have enough minutes in the day to accomplish necessary tasks. Aaker cited a recent survey of more than 1,000 people where 50 percent of respondents said they constantly feel pressed for time.

It's no wonder then that happiness eludes most Americans in a culture where "busyness is a badge of honor," said Couric.

Social media has a grip on people's happiness. A recent study suggested that people's self-esteem plummets after spending time on social media networks like Facebook. Many social media users carefully curate their photos and posts on Facebook to present the best, happiest image.

Onlookers, however, compare their happiness to the perceived happiness of others and conclude that their lives don't measure up. Those negative thoughts "stick" to us more easily than positive thoughts, Kelley said, and so people should spend more time reflecting upon and appreciating the happy moments.

"Celebrating when positive things are happening, being there for them to stick with you, seems like it's important to me."

Life, liberty and the pursuit of meaning

Both stress and social media can promote happiness as well. It's all a matter of the right kind of stress and the right use of social media.

Ian TerpinPanelists David Kelley and Ian Gotlib

David Kelley and Ian Gotlib

Good stress, says Dhabhar, is fleeting and taps into the fight-or-flight response in the brain. It prepares people to protect themselves. In the modern context, many things trigger the type of good stress that brings out our best, such as the anxiety of a job interview, or performing.

"For example, when you find yourself on a roundtable discussion with distinguished guests and audience," Dhabhar said, "hopefully [the effects of good stress] help you make sense of what you're about to say."

Running and sex also trigger "good stress" responses as well as make people feel happier.

When it comes to social media, people shouldn't use their friend's image as a yardstick for their own happiness.

"It's OK to be sad," said Dhabhar. "For stress as well as negative emotions, one of the most powerful buffers is genuine social support."

Engaging with social media in a genuine way can help people build these crucial support networks.

"I don't think we should be aiming to be happy all the time," Gotlib said.

All the panelists agreed that people should instead be pursuing meaning in their lives. Meaning can come from many things, like a satisfying job, having a family or cultivating close relationships with friends. Fundamentally, meaning comes from giving instead of taking.

Lyubomirsky mentioned a study conducted with children in Vancouver. In one group, the researchers asked the children to perform small acts of kindness for four weeks; the other group did not change their behavior as a control. The kids who did kind things, like hug their mom or help with chores, were not only happier by the end of the study, they were more popular as well.

The results tie into Dhabhar's research, which is finding that good stress and meaning have a synergistic effect that promotes happiness and wellbeing, which are both bolstered by and help foster social support networks.

Couric wrapped up the Roundtable by asking the panel if people can control their happiness. Gotlib championed the power of positive thinking, however "hokey."

"This old power of positive thinking is real," Gotlib said. "Changing the way one thinks is the bedrock of probably the most effective form of treatment for emotional disorders."

Positive thinking can help healthy individuals as well. It is a catalyst for forming social networks, giving help to others and finding that all-important meaning to one's life.

Cynthia McKelvey is a science-writing intern for the Stanford News Service.