January 03, 2013


The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t—What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. By Sonja Lyubomirsky. Penguin. $27.95.

Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in a Flash. By Nancy Dreyfus, Psy.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $17.95.

Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in a Flash—64 Flash Cards for Real Life. By Nancy Dreyfus, Psy.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $15.95.

      The “I’ll be happy when” mentality is the enemy of happiness, argues psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky in The Myths of Happiness. A happiness researcher – yes, there are such people – Lyubomirsky says that expecting happiness upon attainment of certain milestones, such as wealth or professional accomplishment, leads only to disappointment when those events do not in fact “:automatically” produce a feeling of happiness. And the same is true of negative events that we expect to destroy or prevent happiness. As Lyubomirsky puts it, “Research on hedonic adaptation shows that we swiftly grow accustomed to most negative events.” In fact, she argues that humans’ adaptability prevents us from becoming supremely happy under certain circumstances and wallowing in misery under others. Thus, there is no doubt that we tend to feel happy after getting a raise or beginning a new romantic relationship, but the increased happiness does not last for long, and we soon return to our individual happiness level, the one at which we were living before the pleasurable occurrence.  This sounds fatalistic, and indeed there is some level of fatalism underlying The Myths of Happiness, as if there is not much we can do to make ourselves happier because we tend to return to our “default happiness setting” whether good things or bad befall us.  But Lyubomirsky takes pains to indicate that this is not so – after all, this would not be much of a self-help book if it reveled in “happiness predestination.” Lyubomirsky says research suggests that unanticipated pleasures are the most rewarding, so we should enjoy them when they occur, even if the pleasant feelings they engender do not last; friendship is a great leveling agent for the ups and downs of life, so we should focus on building and maintaining social relationships – which, for humans as for other primates, are crucial to our happiness; the frequency of positive emotions is good for health, but the intensity of positive feelings is less important; remembering and replaying positive experiences without analyzing them leads to happiness, while analyzing rather than reliving negative events is a key to absorbing them and boosting happiness; and so on. Some of these arguments are more convincing than others, and some of Lyubomirsky’s statements are marred by either careless writing or careless editing, as when she asserts that divorced parents have difficulty “diffusing [rather than “defusing”] parent-child conflict.”  And some of the methods Lyubomirsky recommends to increase happiness fail to take into account significant differences in people’s psychological organization. For example, she says to “spend your money on experiences rather than possessions,” which sounds fine, but other research has shown that people who are more strongly extroverted are more likely to find experiential spending rewarding – which means that introverts who try this prescription are likely to “go against the grain” of their personalities, raise their stress and decrease their happiness.  Her recommendation that people take more risks (she suggests one per month) is similarly more readily applicable to the extroverted than the introverted.  Lyubomirsky deserves credit for trying to find ”action items” that people can use to boost happiness – in light of research by herself and others showing that happiness tends to return to a not-always-golden mean whether one’s experiences are positive or negative.  However, her explanation of the reasons that apparent happiness boosters and happiness suppressors both tend to have minimal long-term effect proves more interesting and valuable than her prescriptions for going beyond one’s individual normal setting for happiness.

      Relationships, to which Lyubomirsky pays some attention, are the entire focus of Nancy Dreyfus’ Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love, whose newly revised edition incorporates two additional sections. The book dates back to 1993 but retains an up-to-date feel, because Dreyfus focuses not on building a relationship and not on whether a new or enduring relationship brings happiness, but on the inevitable bumps in the relationship road and ways to use flash cards to smooth them.  Yes, the “in a flash” portion of the subtitle refers to flash cards, and yes, there is a new version of the book that is a set of flash cards -- although there are just 64 of them, compared with 127 entries in the book itself.  Dreyfus’ book has a strong and focused layout: simple, direct statements on red left-hand pages are followed by explanatory material and usage suggestions for the statements on more-traditional-looking right-hand pages. In the card deck, the simple statements appear on the front and the more-extended discussions on the back.  Dreyfus, a psychotherapist and couples therapist, divides her book into 11 sections: Shifting Gears, Setting Limits, Feeling Vulnerable, Taking Responsibility, Giving Information, Getting Clarification, Apologizing, Loving, Making Up, Making Love, and Deepening Trust. The last two sections are new.  A sample flash card may say, “I want us to stop what we are doing to each other. Both of us. Now.” Among the comments on this is, “This is a willingness to honor your partnership when it would be so easy to take sides, as it were.”  Another example: “Your behavior embarrassed me. I’m trying to tell you, not to make you feel bad, but so I can feel close to you again.” Part of the discussion: “This flash card is for when you end up, say, haranguing your partner on the car ride home from the scene of your embarrassment.”  One more: “Right now, I’d do anything for you to know how much I love you.” Commentary: “This card was not designed to be a profound declaration of love to a partner who may be doubting it. It was designed to infuse your interchange with a dose of goodwill…”  The whole setup of Dreyfus’ book is artificial and gimmicky, and will not appeal to many couples, especially since it requires each party to decide, during a stressful time, just which section that particular stress fits into and just which flash card is most appropriate to offer.  On the other hand, the very artificiality of the approach will have a cooling effect on many arguments, and couples who are willing to try it may find that the need to pause and reflect on just what to say via flash card actually helps defuse volatile situations. The actual flash-card deck is even more gimmicky than the book, but has the virtue of presenting less discussion and less information on each card – making these cards more usable for quick responses to explosive or potentially explosive situations. Couples willing to try an approach that seems facile on its face but that has some good thinking behind it may find Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love, in either of its forms, a worthwhile way to attempt at least partial relationship repair – maybe only temporarily, maybe not “in a flash,” but maybe for long enough to provide a chance to get through the surface-level difficulties and try to handle their underlying foundations.

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