In this Zola Q&A, Sonja Lyubomirsky—author of The Myths of Happiness, a new book exploring popular misconceptions about what actually brings us joy—discusses the relationship between money and happiness, why most marriages lose their spark, and how a traffic jam can be just as traumatic as a car crash.
Zola: How do you quantify happiness?
Sonja Lyubomirsky: There are basically two components. The first is the frequent experience of positive emotions like joy, curiosity, success, self-esteem, etc. The second component of happiness is the sense that your life is going well and that you’re progressing toward your goals like you hope to be. So we measure happiness by simply asking people how happy they are, how satisfied with their lives they are, how often they experience positive emotions. There’s no thermometer for happiness, so there’s not really any other way to measure it other than just to ask people.
Zola: Why do we feel the effects of negative experiences longer than we feel the effects of positive ones?
SL: There’s a saying in psychology: “Bad is stronger than good.” Which means that any bad experience or negative event is more powerful than a positive experience. That’s also evolutionary, because when something bad happens it’s very important that we attend to it. It could be a threat, it could be a danger—it’s something that we have to focus on and do something about. It takes us longer to adapt to negative changes. For example, let’s say you win $1000 in the lottery, and let’s say you lose a $1000. It’s going to take you a lot longer to adapt to having lost the money than having won it.
Zola: In the chapter on being single, you have a message for people who think there’s no happiness without marriage and kids.
SL: People come to be lifelong singles through various paths, but the message that I really want people to take from that chapter is that there are many people who have been single all their lives who are very happy, who lead very rich, meaningful lives. They have lifelong friends. They get meaning from their work, from helping others, and from other things. So marriage and children is not a necessity when it comes to happiness. You can make a happy life for yourself that’s different from what we all sort of expect or what is considered desirable in our culture.
Zola: How common is it for people to feel like the spark has gone out of their marriage after the first two years or so?
SL: Well, the studies show that this is the average response. The trend is that after two years people’s happiness levels revert back to what they were before they got married. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the spark has gone out. It just means that the kind of initial thrill and passion is reduced. So it doesn’t mean they’re unhappy, they just don’t have that initial boost anymore. It’s very common.
Zola: You write that daily ups and downs affect us much more than major life events. Why is that?
SL: When something major happens to us we tend to realize it more. For example, if you have a car accident you’re going to marshal all of your resources to deal with it. You’re also going to seek social support from other people to help you. When little things happen, you’re not going to go complain to your friends, like, “Oh, I had to wait in this long line,” or “I got stuck in traffic.” There are all these little things that make us unhappy, but you don’t get a lot of support for that because it seems trivial. We also don’t muster all of our psychological resources to cope with those things because we don’t think we have to. But the problem is, lots of trivial little bad things really add up cumulatively to affect your day-to-day happiness.
Zola: Americans are seriously unhappy about money these days—more, you point out, than they have been in 30 years. What advice would you give them?
SL: First, people have to understand the relationship between money and happiness, because I think a lot of us have this idea that you can’t be happy without having a lot of money. Wealthier people are happier than less wealthy people, but the effect is really not that large. Assuming that your basic needs are being met, the research shows that money is not the key to happiness. You can create happiness without having a lot of money. For example, anything you can do to connect with other people, to focus on family and friends, to grow as a person—these things don’t necessarily require a lot of money to do. These things have a more powerful effect on happiness than how much money you have in the bank.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.