If You’re Happy and You Know It…

Posted: November 12, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

happy students
The key to a happy life seems to be keeping in tune with your values, goals and passions, according to Mason professor Todd Kashdan. When you are able to balance contentment with curiosity, you have what he calls the “yin” and “yang” of happiness.
Creative Services Photo

By Tara Laskowski

Pop quiz: What will make you happier? Eating a big, hot pizza and a bowl of oozy cheese fries, or volunteering for the afternoon at a homeless shelter?

The tasty food might bring a quick jolt of hedonistic happiness. But will the guilt of all those calories ruin your happiness high in the long run?

On the other hand, the volunteer work might be more time consuming and difficult to accomplish, but will the satisfaction of knowing you helped other human beings last a little longer?

Todd Kashdan
Todd Kashdan
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Todd B. Kashdan, assistant professor of psychology at Mason, studies the science of happiness. Not only what makes people happy, but more important, how people can increase their happiness and sustain it over a long period of time.

“Nearly everyone is striving for happiness or a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives,” says Kashdan. “The question is: how can we live our lives in such a way that we can be happy?”

As director of Mason’s Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths and Related Phenomena, Kashdan looks at the kinds of things we do to make ourselves happy. Like the eating vs. volunteering dilemma, the reasons behind the things we do for happiness are important factors in how much we feel and how long it lasts. While hedonistic actions — things done purely for self-pleasure — were thought to be less valuable over time than altruistic actions such as the homeless shelter volunteer work, Kashdan doesn’t like to judge one over the other.

“If you have the opportunity to do something that is purely for self-pleasure, and it is in line with your life values, goals and passions, then do it.”

For example, if you have the chance to drive a racecar, and cars are one of your passions, then chances are years from now you’ll still think of that car ride, and the memory will bring you happiness.

In fact, the key to a happy life seems to be keeping in tune with your values, goals and passions. When you are able to balance contentment with curiosity, you have what Kashdan calls the “yin” and “yang” of happiness. Contentment is having downtime to reflect and savor the past, present and future, and restore your energy supply to navigate the demands and challenges of everyday life. The other, curiosity, is the need to explore and seek out new things. Curious individuals, Kashdan says, are generally happier and find more meaning in their lives because they are engaged with their surroundings.

“The important thing is to be aware of your larger goals. I’d like to figure out how to help people find their innermost values and develop an architectural framework for how to live life to the fullest.”

The Dark Side of Emotion

Although Kashdan focuses on happiness research, he also does research on what prevents people from being happy. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Kashdan is currently studying people with social anxiety disorder.

With social anxiety disorder, people become so worried about what others think of them that they are afraid to socialize. When they do socialize, they are so fearful of making mistakes and being rejected that they can’t simply be themselves.

By studying these disorders, Kashdan hopes to figure out what prevents people from taking risks and help them avoid stagnation and unhappiness.

Most of the research currently being done in psychology focuses on negative emotions — guilt, jealousy, personality disorders, hatred. In fact, Kashdan says, in recent years the number of negative emotion papers published outranks those of positive emotions 500 to 1.

“People think if we rid the world of pain and disorder — posttraumatic stress, sexual and mental abuse, anxiety — that everyone would be happy,” says Kashdan. “Yet happiness is more than the opposite of disorder.”

Happy Couples

In addition to individual happiness, Kashdan is studying how couples can maintain lasting passion and satisfaction in their relationships. He looks at such things as the way our partners surprise us and the benefits of great sex. He wonders how long positive feelings really last.

He also sees curiosity as a major factor in couple happiness.

“Often, couples who’ve been together for a long time start to see their partner as predictable,” he says. “Yet it seems the people who don’t make assumptions about their partner — who see the unpredictable, little things they do and savor those things, as opposed to focusing on the predictable — are more likely to be happy.”

Kashdan is currently conducting a study in the lab in which he interviews couples about their romantic relationship. However, he is not really interested in their answers to the questions, but rather the ways in which they communicate and even touch each other during the interview.

“Touch is, after all, a form of emotion,” he says.

Seeking Out the Best for Yourself

Kashdan is one of the first recipients of a new annual award at Mason for up-and-coming star faculty members. As one of the 2007 Emerging Researcher, Scholar, Creator awardees, Kashdan will receive a $3,000 stipend for his research.

He is recognized for growing national and international recognition for achievements and scholarship within his field.

Kashdan seems to be living his own theory about what makes a person happy. What drove him to this research is the same thing that keeps him going with it — his passion for the topic. A former specialist’s assistant on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Kashdan realized that his hobby of reading books on creativity and intelligence could be turned into a career. He earned both his master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the University at Buffalo.

“My friends told me I should make a career out of what I really loved and invest in stocks on my free time,” he says. “It led me to realize that it’s a good litmus test for what I should be doing with my career. After that, I took a volunteer research position at Stony Brook University and never turned back.”

Write to at