How to Be Happier in the New Year

by Laura Rowley

For those of you who will spend this weekend making New Year's resolutions -- financial and otherwise -- there's good news: A study that followed a group of people from college through retirement finds old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.

But if your resolution is to get rich, the study suggests, it may not have much effect on your happiness.

In 1966, at a university in the Northeast, 350 students participated in a psychological survey on personal development and happiness. A decade later, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology, came across the study and tracked down most of the original participants, continuing to interview them every 10 years until she had nearly 40 years of data. Whitbourne publishes her findings in the new book "The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research That Reveals the Secret to Long-Term Happiness."

The good news? "It's never too late to change," says Whitbourne, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Especially now, when times are tough and people get very discouraged, they look back at their lives and think about what they could have done differently. But you can look forward."

While some psychologists suggest personality remains stable over a lifetime, Whitbourne saw continued personal growth in participants through the decades.

"The research demonstrates the possibility to change in many ways that you don't think of as adult development," she says. For example, initiative -- the ability to play and think imaginatively -- is thought to develop in preschool years. "Many (psychologists) say, 'check off this quality when you’re five years old and move on.' But I saw some people change in initiative scores in a positive direction," says Whitbourne.

Another unexpected quality that appeared in later years was industry, or work ethic. "Again, that's associated with childhood, but that showed up across the board in the sample," Whitbourne says, particularly for people in their mid-30s. Some participants who lagged behind their peers in college gained ground later, she adds.

"You aren't fated to having the personality you had in your 20s. You’ve got lots of time to catch up," she says.

Whitbourne's research also found money was not associated with well being. "There were some people who weren't as wealthy who were happy; and some folks who had everything -- they had reached the pinnacle of their professions and were at the top of their game, but they answered (affirmatively) to certain questions, such as 'I feel like a failure' or 'I would like to live my life over' or 'I regret mistakes I made.'"

While the need to conquer feelings of inadequacy can sometimes drive financial success, Whitbourne said these participants didn't exhibit insecurity over the course of the study. Rather, "in some cases, they felt they'd sold out," she says.

"They started out in one direction 30 years ago and then made changes that feathered their nests but left them feeling unfulfilled. The happiest people were the ones who said they were making a difference in the world -- in some cases not through their professions, but through community work, volunteering or mentoring."

In addition, Whitbourne found that the much-documented "mid-life crisis" is a myth.

"There was no evidence of midlife crisis -- nothing due to age," Whitbourne says. "I interviewed people from their 20s to their 60s, and that 40-year-old group would have been the key one. But there was no falling apart of personality at age 43; I think people just love the idea -- 'hey I'm having a midlife crisis,' instead of 'I'm miserable.'"

For people who experiencing various stages of misery -- or joy -- Whitbourne identifies five different life pathways, and discusses how to move to a more positive one. They include:

The Meandering Way: Someone has a low sense of identity, lacks priorities, feels lost and is unable to settle on a clear set of goals.

The Downward Slope: Someone appears to have it all, until one or two poor decisions sends his life into a spiral.

The Straight and Narrow Way: Someone who embraces predictability, shies away from risk and doesn't enjoy shaking up his routine.

The Triumphant Trail: Someone whose inner resilience allowed him to overcome significant challenges that may have left him despondent.

The Authentic Road: Someone who takes a bold and honest look at his life, assesses whether it's truly satisfying and takes the necessary risks to get back on track.

Whitbourne suggests that the latter pathway is the ideal one, and someone who wants to shift from a negative road to a more fulfilling one should start with a frank appraisal.

"Do a realistic assessment of where you are now in life versus where you wanted to be when you were younger; do a mental tallying of your goals, how they've been met and revised," she suggests.

Then make small adjustments. "You don't have to run away and restart your life," Whitbourne says. "Start to make mini-steps and see if you're feeling better. Then continue to be open to change. Looking at life in a positive way, and don't get locked into a set way of doing things. Life is about exploring alternatives."

Despite her conviction in the possibility of change, Whitbourne is not a fan of New Year's resolutions.

"Turning the corner on a year always sounds great, but honestly it's just a day," she says. "Don't make too much of it. If you say, 'January 1 is the beginning of a new decade and in three weeks I'm going to be (different) and then you're not, it's going to be frustrating. Be open to change continuously, and don't lock it into a certain date. Look for ways to enhance your life, however long that takes."


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