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Professor to Explain How Happiness Might be Increased

21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture to expand on what makes us happy and what doesn’t

Aug. 31, 2010

Story Contact(s):
MU News Bureau, munewsbureau@missouri.edu, 573-882-6211

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Is it even possible to become happier?

Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science

Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science

The possibilities of happiness, and how to achieve that elusive feeling, have dominated the thoughts of great intellectuals throughout time, including the hundreds of books one can find on the current market. Kennon M. Sheldon, professor of psychology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science, has studied the subject throughout his career, and he points to three ways to achieve happiness, although he’s quick to admit that happiness may not be just around the corner. Sheldon will share his findings with faculty, staff and students during the annual 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture on Sept. 1.

“There are very valid reasons for skepticism about the possibility of boosting our current happiness to a new level – which, if true, would be a problem for the whole American ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Sheldon said. “No matter how good things get, people tend to adapt and return to where they started, happiness-wise. But the research has shown that if three basic needs are fulfilled: autonomy, competence, and relatedness – and we can continue to have new experiences that keep these needs refreshed – then a person can stay in the top end of their own potential happiness range.”

As an international leader in the “positive psychology” movement that is approaching a decade of existence, Sheldon emphasizes the importance of testing happiness theories and strategies with rigorous longitudinal data.

“Most self-help books never did this, they just went straight to marketing,” Sheldon said. “We want to know what actually works, and why.”

Many people place a premium on material needs and consumption, and the initial happiness fades when these physical objects become just an everyday part of life.

“Things that might bring you temporary happiness, like a new furniture set, for example, fall prey to what we call hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. It might be good for a bit, and you might be up for awhile, but what does it take to stay up? Basically, you have to change what you do, not what you have,” Sheldon said. “And even then, you have to pick appropriate new activities to do, do them for the right reasons, and keep varying how you do them, so they maintain their satisfaction potential.”

Every year, the 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture at the University of Missouri features a prominent faculty member to inspire and bring together the university community, and to commemorate the contributions of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Sheldon is the seventh member of the College of Arts and Science to give the lecture. The media are invited to attend.

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