BERKELEY -- One might think the audience for a lecture by author Sonja Lyubomirsky about the latest research described in her recently published "The Myths of Happiness" would be unhappy folks looking for a remedy.
Instead, a full house of just-under 200 brought plenty of cheer to the Jan. 29 event; most immediately to the event's co-sponsors, Melissa Mytinger, of Berkeley Arts & Letters, and UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center Director Ann Shulman.
"(Sonja) has pretty much obviated the need for us (as a happiness resource)," Shulman declared, only half in jest.
Her enthusiasm was reflected in the smiling face and words of Gregory Bell, a 51-year-old computer consultant who had traveled to Berkeley from Fremont to hear about happiness.
"I'm generally a happy person, so I wanted to understand research about it," Bell said. "I want to help other people, because they always ask me, 'Why are you so happy?'"
Bell said he's often "accused of looking through rosy glasses" and admitted that bad things have occurred in his life, before adding, "I don't dwell on those."
Lyubomirsky dispelled any myths about her purpose in a comment paralleling Bell's: "I'm not a "happiologist." I don't think we should be happy all the time. Negative emotions are important."
Those emotions, like anger at social injustice or anxiety over an upcoming work project, can even fuel landmark reform and result in positive outcomes, she suggested.
"Happiness is more than rainbows and kittens. It's a serious thing," she said. "One of the themes of my book is that people are remarkably resilient. They rebound after loss."
Lyubomirsky knows firsthand how fairy tale expectations and hedonic adaptation lead to explosive, polarizing debates and toxic emotions. Her talk drew from her studies as a professor of psychology at UC Riverside and the latest scientific research, expanding beyond her 2008 book, "The How of Happiness."
"It's gotten to the point where I don't tell people on airplanes what I do. A friend told me I should say I'm a banker. No follow up questions," she said with a laugh.
Her 24 years of research have proved that common myths -- "I'll be happy when I get married, strike it big, have children, more sex, a bigger house" -- don't lead to feelings of joy. They lead to a hedonic treadmill; our sense of pleasure spiraling downward as we grow accustomed to changes in our lives.
"Getting used to negative things in our life is a good thing, but hedonic adaptation has a dark side, because we adapt to positive things," she said. "We dread getting old. Especially getting old and not having fulfilled our dreams."
Lyubomirsky said there's no short course for misery or joy. Self-help comes from jettisoning pop psychology and centering on real research, then forming a battle plan for life's inevitable blows and blessings.
"The ideas of appreciate and gratitude seem obvious, but where we direct our attention determines our life," she said. "It's not easy to do, you can't be grateful every day of your life. It takes creativity."
Introducing novelty and variety into relationships and paying attention to how we spend our money, instead of how much money we have, are important steps. Forming a few profound, lifelong friendships is more powerful than having 600 Facebook "friends."
Expectedly, learning and giving were on the top of her list.
"Learn a new language, contribute to your community, spend money on someone other than yourself, and stop waiting for happiness," she suggested.
Lisa Flynn of San Francisco came to Berkeley already several steps ahead on the path to happiness. At 24, she works for Ayusa, a cultural exchange nonprofit, after two years in Uganda as a Peace Corps community health volunteer.
"I'm focusing on getting out, going to lectures, so my life isn't just about work," Flynn said. "I have good friends and family, health, safety, and constant learning."
Audience questions addressed happiness in countries outside the U.S.
Lyubomirsky said the pursuit of happiness is universal, but differentiates itself in how it is achieved. Russians believe in suffering to gain character and South Koreans are burdened (not made happy) by a need to reciprocate when presented with another person's gratitude.
People who find joy after or amid tragedy often live in the moment, with non-escalating expectations. The least wealthy countries report citizens (unless they live in extreme poverty) with some of the highest happiness quotients.
Conservatives, she said, to much laughter, are happier than liberals.
"It's correlational, so we don't know why. (Scientists) argue that conservatives have a greater tolerance for inequality."
Advocating a scientific approach to a subjective, human condition, Lyubomirsky said, "Most books are written by people who might be wise, but they're not based on research. If you were seeking medical treatment, wouldn't you want to know it had been tested -- and worked?"