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Charlotte psychologist suggests striving for “flow” instead of happiness

Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.

A lot of people dream of winning the lottery to achieve lifetime happiness.

But research shows it doesn’t work that way.

Winning the lottery may provide lifetime security, but the “mood boost that one gets tends to return to prior levels in relatively short order,” said Charlotte psychologist Pierce Howard.

In his new book, “The Owner’s Manual for Happiness: Essential Elements of a Meaningful Life,” Howard offers a list of achievements and choices that people think will make them happier – such as making more money – but don’t.

Despite dramatic rises in the U.S. standard of living over the years, there hasn’t been an accompanying increase in happiness, Howard writes.

As I flipped through the book, it fell open to an interesting example. According to research from Princeton University’s Center for Wellness, when a couple reaches a household income of $75,000, further increases in income don’t affect happiness over the long term.

Subsequent pay raises cause a “slight increase” in happiness, only to evaporate, the research showed. Each successive raise is accompanied by a brief rise, and quick fall, in happiness. “One feels more successful with further increases in income, but not happier,” Howard writes.

The reason? Happiness isn’t an achievement, it’s a personality trait, says Howard, who with his wife, Jane, operates the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte.

Julie Andrews’ singing nanny in “Sound of Music” had it. So did Roberto Benigni’s concentration-camp father in the movie, “Life is Beautiful.”

It’s also not all or none, Howard said. “It’s a continuum. People’s set points are different.”

Howard is one of many social scientists interested in “positive psychology,” the study of what makes people happy versus what makes them depressed. If you’re not predisposed to happiness, trying to find it can just be frustrating. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find contentment.

In his book, he describes “five major modes of positive being” that work regardless of whether a person is calm or neurotic, practical or creative, naturally happy or not.

The five modes include “flow” and “fit.”

For example, Howard suggests finding a way to flourish by achieving a state of “flow.” When you’re so engrossed in what you're doing that you forget where you are and what time it is, you have achieved “flow,” he said. You could be reading, cooking, sewing, painting, playing a sport or solving a math problem.

“It is ultimately more satisfying in the long term to aspire to be meaningfully engaged rather than being gleeful day in and day out,” he said.

Howard also suggests finding the right “fit” in our professional and personal lives. For example, an extrovert in a sales job could flourish, but an introvert might not.

Finding “flow” and “fit” can be “very satisfying,” Howard said. “They don’t make you happy per se, but they make you feel as though life has meaning.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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