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Prof. Dan Lerner on the Science of Happiness: Is There a Secret Formula?

Dan Lerner teaches the largest and most popular non-required course at New York University: "The Science of Happiness."  We were lucky to get to talk to him for an hour about his ideas.  He told us: "Surprisingly, there are a lot of scientific studies that have been done on the idea of happiness--in fact since the late 90s there has been a wave of research into what we call positive psychology, or what is simply termed happiness, well-being or thriving."

But Lerner says achieving a state of happiness isn't as easy as repeating some platitudes.  For example, new college students face many challenges to their well-being.  He related that studies show 90 percent feel overwhelmed on a regular basis and 30 percent face debilitating depression.  "Too many college students think they need to make a million dollars by the time they're 22--that's a lot of pressure.  We think that when we're successful we are going to be happy--when we get the house we want, the car we want, the salary we think we need, then we're going to be happy.  But that is very rarely the case."

Lerner told us that since he is visiting a college town (Iowa City), he can relate the experience he has had with college professors: "Many think that they will achieve ultimate happiness when they get tenure, that it will be the greatest thing ever."  But he says once they achieve it, many are happy for a couple of weeks and then "they're back to baseline."  In fact, Lerner noted the highest white-collar earners in our society, lawyers, rank first in alcohol abuse, first in nicotine abuse and first in depression.  "The highest earners on Wall Street also have the highest levels of depression," he said.

So what's the solution?  Lerner says when we start with the goal of positive emotions, positive relationships and striving for meaning sand purpose in the things we are engaged in, we will have a much better chance of being successful.  "Students who are more optimistic end up having higher GPAs--and people who have higher levels of positive emotion, doctors, for example, end up diagnosing their patients more accurately.  There's something going on in the brain--when we're happy, we have an advantage," Lerner told Charity.  "But then again, we all define success differently."

Lerner's new book with co-author Alan Schlechter, is out this month, titled "U Thrive: How to Succeed in College and Life." (Little, Brown)

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Dennis Reese was the mid-day host for Iowa Public Radio