BUENOS AIRES — Attaining happiness has become so important in our society that it now occupies an entire field of scientific study. Researchers have moved beyond merely studying the psychology of desire and are now identifying new methodologies to help us learn how to be happier.

One of the pioneers of the field is the Israeli-born psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches at Harvard University and is the author of several widely read books, including The Pursuit of Perfect, wherein he calls perfectionism a kind of neurosis. He argues that the modern human condition pushes us to work toward attaining the impossible. The antidote he proposes is to replace this perfectionism with optimism, noting how perfectionists simply reject flaws, while optimists humbly accept them.

Accepting life as it — flawed — will free you of the fear of failure, says Ben-Shahar. Learn from mistakes, he suggests, without dramatizing them. Another specific suggestion: 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily to release the chemicals in your body that mitigate pain and increase the sense of pleasure.

Tal Ben-Shahar in September 2013 — Photo: El Universal/ZUMA

There are also specialists working in this field in Argentina. From the realm of sociology, Marita Carballo published La felicidad de las naciones (The Happiness of Nations), a book based on polls taken across the world that have brought out certain common "pointers" of happiness. She argues that this information could be integrated into school curricula, both to raise satisfaction levels and help students identify personal priorities.

Competing "needs"

"With the argument that too much advertising and consumer-oriented abundance make people less happy with what they have, and make them want more, certain governments are considering restrictions," Carballo notes. "In Sweden, advertising directed at children under the age of 12 was banned."

Since so many people continue to identify happy moments in their lives with social relations, this sociologist says there should be more public programs "that increase the level of interpersonal trust." In practical terms this can mean encouraging neighbors to spend time together.

Carballo notes that "the relationship between earnings and happiness is complex." Beyond a middle-income level, she states, "an increase in revenue does not necessarily signify more happiness." A good work environment and generally following your vocation seem to be important.

"People learn to feel well by repeating positive emotional processes and by avoiding negative processes," says neuroscientist Federico Fros Campelo, author of Ciencia de las emociones (Science of Emotions). "At the end of the day, these processes are the result of step-by-step sequences in the brain."

Fros Campelo says people come "wired with programs that turn into motives." One program is the "quest for self-sufficiency," which helps us develop ourselves, he argues.

Add to all of this what you have learned culturally, and we see that the society in which we live guides people toward individualism, encourages a search for autonomy above all other emotional maps, like empathy for example.

"Without your personality as a counterweight, the 'self-sufficiency wand' may dazzle people, and this could become a dysfunctional activity," says Fros Campelo. "To be happy we have to know and harmonize the various programs that sometimes pull us in different directions." Part of that, the writer explains, means balancing our for "certainty and stability" with another need: new things in our lives.