The Pursuit of Happiness: A Conversation with Dr. Tabitha Kirkland, Psychology Lecturer

In anticipation of Dr. Kirkland’s workshop about happiness habits at this year’s Support Professionals Spring Retreat, POD spoke with her about her signature area of study.

Q. Can you complete this sentence: “Happiness is…”

I would say happiness is being with others.

Q. So, does that work out for introverts?

It still does. I think there’s kind of a misconception that introverts are antisocial, and that’s not necessarily true. They don’t want to spend their energy on interacting with a bunch of strangers, but they do still want and desire close social connections. I think that’s part of our nature. Full disclosure: I’m a social psychologist, so I believe this inherently, but the scientific research of happiness bears out that social connections and social support are some of the best things we can do to buffer ourselves against the stresses and the harshness of life. There’s a lot of research about how loneliness is so bad for us, not just mentally but also physically. On the flip side, when we connect with other people it also has both mental and physical benefits, which is kind of amazing.

Q. What is dispositional happiness, and can we change it?

Happiness is talked about as either an emotion or as a quality of being. “Dispositional” refers to traits that we have that are more enduring, that aren’t temporary emotions or moods. So, dispositional happiness would not just be feeling good now but somebody who tends to have a more positive orientation in life, someone who frequently experiences positive emotion, someone who’s an optimist by nature, someone who interprets things in the best possible light, all that kind of stuff. The evidence is pretty clear that, although this is something that is a stable individual difference, it also can be changed.

A huge part of what makes us a happier person or a less happy person is the habits of mind that we have and the kinds of environments we surround ourselves with. In my class on happiness, we talk a lot about the habits of mind that we make, the ways those mental habits are serving us or not, and also who we are surrounding ourselves with, what that support system looks like, and so on. Those are things we can change — with effort.

Q. Can a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach help you be happier? If I’m not generally happy but I pretend like I’m happy, does that actually make me happier?

It sounds kind of like a gimmick, right? There is some research on how when we fake things in the body sense, like putting our body in certain configurations, that feedback from our body gives our mind information about how we feel. For example, with “power posing,” standing in a more confident posture makes people feel more confident. Or research on the facial feedback hypothesis suggests that people feel more amusement when they smile than when they frown. So, if you smile a lot, will that make you a happier person? Maybe — but you could take that suggestion too far!

I think there are other ways we can fake it that can help us be happier. For example, practicing happiness habits or doing something that feels awkward or different to us, like trying to take a more positive interpretation when normally we’d be cynical. Yes, that’s faking it, but that’s also trying to develop better patterns. In some ways, it’s going to feel a little bit strange or even inauthentic the first few times we do it because it’s not what we’re used to, but I think if we keep it up, it’ll not be faking it anymore, it’ll just become the new normal.

Q. What good is being happy (other than, of course, just feeling happy)?

It can have ripple effects. It doesn’t just affect you but everyone around you. For example, there was a 20-year study done in Framingham, Massachusetts — the Framingham Heart Study — that looks, in part, at people’s levels of happiness or unhappiness and how those change over time. They were able to look at the structure of the entire social network to see if happiness spreads and how far. They found that happier people tended to be more centrally socially connected and had more connections than people who were unhappy. Also, they found that happiness spreads farther and faster than unhappiness. One person’s happiness level could be traced to somebody three degrees of separation away — that’s so far! That’s like me to you to your dentist to your dentist’s sister.

So, if you think about this idea of how small actions can have these sort of ripple effects, I think it’s really powerful. We talk so much about wanting to change the world, change society, or if one person can have an impact, but I really think we can.

Q. Are happy leaders better leaders?

Here’s the thing: If you’re a happy person, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t see the downside or that you can’t anticipate risk or things like that. I think that’s kind of a misconception about happy people, that they’re Pollyanna, like super-optimistic all the time and blind to any negative points, and obviously that wouldn’t be the best way to lead. Many leaders need to, for instance, resolve conflict or anticipate negative events, but from studies of happy people, they aren’t necessarily blind to the bad things. It’s just that they have recalibrated themselves to be a bit more balanced.

Most folks who are not at the top of the happiness spectrum are a lot more sensitive to negative than positive information. In psychology, we call it the negativity bias: we notice and pay more attention to negative stuff, like negative personal feedback. This aversion to danger or risk probably helped us survive in prehistoric times. Happier people have just shifted that balance a little bit so that they’re attending both to the negative and positive. So they are able to notice both the risks and the opportunities.

I’d say that more balanced approach would be a good thing because part of good leadership is recognizing opportunities, knowing when to take risks, or being able to make a creative leap, and people who experience a lot of positive emotion are better calibrated to take advantage of that.

Q. You’re presenting a workshop on Creating Happiness Habits at this year’s Spring Retreat. What can participants expect?

At the retreat, we’ll be trying a bunch of strategies. There’s no magic pill that you can take that’s instantly going to make you happy, but there are a lot of different things that have worked for different folks. We’ll go through some ideas to see if there’s something that fits with each person’s style, something that each person can take away to form new habits.

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