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Aug. 25, 2010 Volume 32, No. 1

Don’t worry, researcher says: Happiness is a sustainable resource

Corps of Discovery Lecture

Sheldon to discuss the science of positive psychology

Perhaps it is fitting that when you ask Kennon Sheldon about happiness, he smiles. Sheldon, this year’s 21st  Century Corps of Discovery speaker, is an authority on happiness. Understanding how to achieve it is his business.

“We are all obsessed by happiness,” Sheldon, professor of psychology, says. “Everybody wants it, everybody talks about it and whether once you lose it, is it possible to get it back?”

Sheldon will address these issues in his lecture at 3:30 p.m. Sept 1, in Jesse Auditorium. This year will mark the seventh anniversary of the Corp of Discovery Lecture, a series held in honor of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the discoveries that journey brought to early America.

Sheldon is a renowned researcher and lecturer on personal goals and how those goals affect people’s growth, development and wellbeing. In his 13 years at MU, he has become particularly known for his work in positive psychology and the theory of “hedonic adaptation,” which explains why even when we get the things we most want — a raise, a new job, a home — we quickly go looking for another fix to make us happy.

“People tend to think one particular thing will make them happy,” Sheldon says. “If I can just get that new car, that new outfit, haircut — whatever. The problem is, those are all static changes. We get the new car, and we become accustomed to it. The thrill wears off.

 “The real question,” he continues, “is can a person’s happiness go up, and can it stay up?” 

It might not be easy, but there are ways to do it. The key, according to Sheldon’s theory, is to meet three basic needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy is doing what we want to be doing; competence is doing it well; and relatedness is teaching what we know to others.

“It’s what we’ve always been told,” Sheldon says. “Follow your dreams. Figure out where you’d like to be, what you would like to be doing, and then figure out what you need to do to get there.”

Sheldon cites his own career as an example. “I started out as a graduate student looking around and asking questions. Those questions led to other questions, to opportunities. The steady stream keeps me happier than I otherwise would be.”

But how do you measure something like happiness? “That is something I will talk about at the lecture,” he said. “How each member of the audience compares with the others.”

Sheldon, author of Optimal Human Being: An Integrated Multi-level Perspective, backs up his theories with award-winning research. In 2002, the Templeton Foundation awarded him one its four annual Positive Psychology prizes. He is a past winner of the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Research Creativity in the Social Sciences at MU. In 2006, the International Society for Quality of Life Studies gave Sheldon its award for best paper, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. 

He also contributed to the popular book, The How of Happiness by Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside. Published in 2007, the book draws on research with thousands of men and was featured on ABC’s 20/20 In Touch.

Sheldon, who is highly sought for public appearances, says his Corps of Discovery speech will not “be just bubba wisdom to sell books.” Rather, he will attempt to shed light on a topic that almost everyone has thought about at one time or another in their life. After all, the pursuit of happiness is a goal enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

An ice cream social will follow the lecture. And if that’s not enough to lift your spirits, Sheldon says with a smile: “Following the talk, I will also be handing out happiness prescriptions.”

— Robert Johnson