.The Science of Happiness

GTW111413Even though the framers of the U.S. constitution included ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as our inalienable right endowed by Our Creator, only recently have psychologists begun to define exactly what that actually means. 

Positive psychology consultant Shawn Achor likes to tell the story of how he was asked to speak at a New England boarding school’s “wellness week.” The topics slated for each day of the week included eating disorders, depression, drugs, violence and more. “That’s not a wellness week,” Achor says. “That’s a sickness week.”

The author of the book “The Happiness Advantage,” wasn’t joking. When most of us think about health, we discuss disease. We go to doctors when we are sick and to psychologists when we feel bad emotionally. Even as late as 1988, there was a 17-1 ratio of negative studies in the field of psychology to positive ones. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.

Thankfully, in the last decade or so, neurologists, psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to study causes of happiness and well-being, much in the way the mental health world since Sigmund Freud has been investigating negative issues such as depression and schizophrenia.

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Achor and others in the field of positive psychology like to talk about the scatter-plot diagram, the standard graph plotting anything: weight in relation to height, sleep in relation to energy, with one dot (individual) outside the standard path.

“If we got this data back as researchers, we would be thrilled because very clearly there is a trend going on here,’” Achor says. Researchers usually believe the one weird red dot outside the path the outlier is a measurement error, and so they would delete it. This is statistically valid if you’re studying trends or the average behaviors or average outcomes—say, how the average child reads in school.

“If we study what is merely average, we will remain average,” Achor points out. While conventional psychology ignores the outliers because they do not fit the pattern, positive psychologists seek them out in order to learn from them. How do we become the person with the above-average health/wealth/happiness?

That is the purview of positive psychologists, who apply scientific rigor to what might have once been thought of as ‘common sense’ or written about in pop-psychology and self-help books. Now, psychologists and neurologists can factually prove why happiness is good for our brains, our bodies, our health and even the health of those around us.

For example, you may have heard that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep, but did you know that, according to one study, sleep-deprived rats lived only three to five weeks, instead of their normal life span of two to three years? In other words, lack of sleep may actually cause a number of diseases, even death.

But enough talk of death and disease. We are here to talk about happiness: what it is, how it benefits us, and how we can achieve it.

What Is Happiness?
Even though the framers of the U.S. constitution included “the pursuit of happiness” as our inalienable right endowed by Our Creator, only recently have psychologists begun to define exactly what that actually means.

Martin Seligman, who founded the positive psychology movement in 1998, originally said “authentic happiness” is about three things:

• Positive emotion: What we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. He calls an entire life successfully led around this element the “pleasant life.”

coverV• Engagement: Being in flow during an absorbing activity, such as being at one with music, playing with your children, reading a book you feel time-stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness. He calls a life lived around being in flow the ‘engaged life.’ Engagement is different, even opposite, from positive emotion: If you ask people who are in flow what they are thinking and feeling, they usually say, “nothing.”

• Meaning: Belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self is the “meaningful life.” Humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political parties, the family, etc.

Recently, though, Seligman amended his “authentic happiness” theory. “I actually detest the word “happiness,” which is so overused that is has become almost meaningless. It is an unknowable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life,” he writes in his new book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.”

He thinks when people hear the word “happy” they think of “buoyant moods, good cheer, merriment and smiling.” That’s why he prefers to talk about “well-being” instead, because it can be measured scientifically, not just by how people rate themselves. Those include positive emotion, engagement and meaning, but also include purpose, relationships and accomplishments. In laymen’s terms, the goal in life is not to be pleasant or just have self-satisfaction, but to have a meaningful, purposeful life that is full of engagement, pleasure, accomplishment and satisfying relationships.If you measured life’s happiness as personal satisfaction, no one would have children or care for their aging parents. But if you take a broader view of well-being, and you include meaning, purpose and relationships, it makes perfect sense to care for our families.

A simpler definition comes from the professor of the “Happiness” course at Harvard University, Tal Ben-Shahar: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes in his book “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Fulfillment.” In other words, short-term pleasure plus long-term goals. Ben-Shahar likes to quote Holocaust survivor Viktor Frenkl, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling of some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Did you know that laughter leads to increased heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen consumption similar to aerobic exercise? After intense laughter, body muscles relax. When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins, the powerful chemicals that boost mood and override sadness and negative thoughts.

Not only that, but according to the study “Humor and Laughter May Influence Health” (Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, December 2007), Mary Payne Bennett and Cecile A. Lengacher found that laughter in response to humorous stimuli correlates with improvement of natural killer (NK) cell activity—the immune cells that kill cancerous cells and prevent some types of viral illnesses.

Guess what? You don’t actually have to laugh to get these health benefits. A study presented at the American Physiological Society session at Experimental Biology 2006 found that “just the expectation of mirthful laughter” cause the same neurons to fire as if the event took place.

Optimism is also good for our health. A study of the journals of 180 Catholic nuns written when they were about 22 found a correlation between optimism, positivity and longevity. “Positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity six decades later,” the study found. The nuns who expressed joy in their journals when they were young lived almost 10 years longer than the other nuns whose journal writing was negative or neutral.

Optimism can even predict heart attacks: In one study of 120 men from San Francisco who had their first heart attack, trying to change their personalities from Type A (aggressive) to Type B (laid-back) was not a predictor of a second heart attack. Neither was their cholesterol, blood-pressure, weight or lifestyle. The men were all interviewed and their language was ‘coded’ for optimism and pessimism. Within eight and a half years, half the men died of a second heart attack. Of the sixteen most pessimistic men, 15 died. Of the 16 most optimistic men, only five died.

A positive outlook on life also boosts our immune system. People with a positive outlook on life are less likely to get sick and help them recover from stress, sickness and failure. There’s no end to the research. Actually there’s a burgeoning field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which studies the interaction between psychology and the nervous and immune systems of the human body. In other words, how does the way you handle events affect your brain and then affect your immune system? PNI incorporates psychology, neuroscience, immunology, physiology, pharmacology, molecular biology, psychiatry, behavioral medicine, infectious diseases, endocrinology, and rheumatology.

How Going Beyond Ourselves=Healthfulness
Putting aside our psychology, optimism, stress levels and general outlook in life, there are other external factors in the well-being construct that can boost our health.

• Social Relationships: Forming social bonds increases oxytocin, reduces anxiety and improves concentration and focus. Social connections also boost our cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune systems. Lack of social connection can add 30 points to an adult’s blood pressure reading and can be as deadly as certain diseases. Studies show that people who suffer heart attacks or breast cancer and are in support groups were two or three times more likely to survive than people who weren’t.

The Harvard Men study followed 268 men from college in the 1930s to the present, and found that social relationships mattered more than anything else, for health, success and happiness.

• Accomplishment: Goal-setting and achieving those goals is one of the cornerstones of well-being. That’s because feeling in control drives both well-being and performance. According to a 2002 study of 3,000 workers, those who felt more in control at work reported higher satisfaction in every aspect of life: family, job and relationships. The more you set goals and finish them at work, at home, in school—the better you feel about all aspects of your life.

• Meaning and Purpose: But it’s not enough to have goals. Recent studies show that having a sense of meaning and possessing a sense of self-realization provides the necessary mental resources for optimal functioning in various physiological systems, which, in turn, “modulate immune factors and neuroendocrine response to challenge.”

It’s important for your health to know that your actions have a purpose. “Mental construction of daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality,” Achor points out, citing an experiment performed on the cleaning staff of seven hotels published in the 2007 Psychological Science. Researchers told half the staff how much exercise and how many calories they were burning doing their work, how vacuuming was similar to a cardio workout; but they didn’t tell the control group anything. Some weeks later, only the ‘cardio’ group lost weight and their cholesterol went down.

Meaning and purpose are good, and helping other people is even better. People who practice charity and altruistic deeds, who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate, have a higher correlation for well-being, happiness, health and longevity, according to recent studies (as long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks).

Getting Happy
It’s taken neuroscience to prove what many of us suspected: happy people live more meaningful, purposeful, healthful lives. Which is all good if you happen to be one of those ‘lucky’ people, but what if you aren’t? Is there a way to become happy?

Actually, scientists do not believe in what we call luck. Most studies of people who feel lucky reveal that the subject’s self-view (‘I’m lucky’) is what made them open to more opportunities. That’s because your brain actually might be more open when you are feeling good. A study at the University of Toronto (published in The Journal of Neuroscience, 2009) found that mood can affect how the visual cortex processes information. Those subjects primed for positive moods process much more in a series of pictures than those primed for negative moods. People who were positive also did better business deals.

coverFIngerIt’s true that some people are genetically (and environmentally) predisposed to have a higher happiness “set point” (the baseline in which the body keep at a particular value, in things like weight, temperature, etc). But regardless of our genes and environment, we can raise our set point of happiness.

One of the best ways to raise your happiness set point is through expressing gratitude on a daily basis. Dr. John Drimmer, who teaches positive psychology at UCLA’s school of medicine, recommends his students practice these exercises:

1. For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy. ‘What we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,’ Drimmer says. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

2. For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful. “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem. They are all words about connection and caring and unity.”

3. For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list (found on Dr. Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness’ website authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx) and then pick the most common occurrences in their lives and see if they can use those strengths the next day.

Of course you don’t have to be a medical student or doctor to use these exercises. A student, a parent, a grandparent, people of any age can start to rewire their brains by incorporating new habits and focusing on the positive. (This is not to say that one should ignore sad, difficult or upsetting events in one’s life, but with gratitude, optimism and a positive mind-frame, it becomes easier to bounce back and even grow from those experiences, what psychologists call “Adversarial Growth”).

Meditation is also another powerful tool for improving happiness. Studies have shown that meditation can help grow the prefrontal cortex and increase happiness. Scientists also believe that physical contact with nature has a profoundly beneficial effect on mental processes. “Beyond mere aesthetics and visual perceptions of beauty, nature can indeed stimulate the senses by way of specific variables, including plant-derived aromatic chemicals, natural light and colors, various sounds, and negative ions,” write Eva M. Selhub M.D. and Alan C. Logan N.D. in the new book, “Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality.”

Countless studies show how exercise improves mood, boosts endorphins and improves well-being. One of the cornerstones of mental well-being is physical well-being. So many studies show it is crucial to eat well, exercise and have a good sleep schedule. You wouldn’t expect your car to win a race if it weren’t well maintained and fine-tuned with regular oil changes and service. The same is true for having a happy life. The more you take care of your physical health, the easier it will be to improve your mental health.

Remember …  There is a reason the framers of the Constitution wrote we have the right to the “pursuit” of happiness, and not simply the “right to happiness.” Happiness, or a life of well-being, is something we must strive to attain, daily. It is not a destination, but a constant process, a path on which each and every person can journey, and, even if they sometimes get lost, can still find their way back.


Founder of Positive Psychology Martin Seligman has classified 24 character strengths, which he subdivided into six categories. If you figure out your character strengths, what you are good at, what you find meaningful, what brings you happiness you can begin to incorporate those strengths into your everyday life. For example, if the character strengths under “Humanity” move you say to enjoy interacting with people all day and love to find what coverCovermakes them tick but you are in a solitary profession, you might need to figure out how to interact more with people (or change professions). Or say “wisdom and knowledge” are an important core strength of yours, but you stay at home with the kids and don’t always feel intellectually challenged, then you might want to incorporate some of your creativity and curiosity into your day with your children, writing songs, doing art projects or learning about the world with them. Take note of a few:

1. Wisdom and Knowledge Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge:

• Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.

• Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.

• Judgment [critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.

• Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.

• Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people.

2. Courage and Emotional strengths that involves the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal.

• Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it.

• Perseverance [persistence, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks.

•  Honesty [authenticity, integrity]: Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions.

• Zest [vitality, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things half way or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.


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