Maybe it’s a char-grilled steak and a bone-dry martini. Or being in love, playing with the dog or perhaps a new pair of Jimmy Choos. It could also be that warm glow you get looking over a full dining room on those rare nights when everything hums along perfectly.
Turns out, happiness—deep, lasting satisfaction as opposed to pleasures that evaporate as quickly as the last drops of gin in that martini—is considerably more complex. Scientists who spend their lives studying the subject contend that it’s some combination of genetics, values and life experience that lead to a happy life.
Whatever happiness is for you, chances are you don’t have enough of it. You spend most of your time just trying to make sure that everyone else—customers, staff, suppliers, reviewers, inspectors—is happy. You work while others play and the days when life controls you far outnumber those when you control life. Employees don’t show, prices rise, bad weather kills your traffic, the dishwasher’s been lifting steaks and your spouse has had it with your schedule. You’re on the firing line every day, and that’s one tough place to find happiness.
But figuring out how to find it does more than put a smile on your face. Happy people are healthier, tend to be more successful—and they live longer too. According to Dr. Ed Diener at the University of Illinois, a leading researcher in the science of happiness, “Not only does happiness feel good, but happy people appear to function better than unhappy people—making more money, having better social relationships, being better organizational citizens at work, doing more volunteer work and having better health.”
Diener cites one study that found that, on average, happy people lived 10.7 years longer than unhappy people. Another study tracked a group of nuns in a Milwaukee convent. Before joining the order back in the 1930s, each nun agreed to keep a diary. The language used and emotions exhibited in those journals were analyzed over the years and enabled researchers to separate the group into “happy nuns” and “not so happy nuns.” According to Diener, two-thirds of the not so happy nuns died before their 85th birthdays, while 90 percent of the happy nuns lived past 85—and under almost identical living conditions. On average, the happy nuns lived nine years longer.
“That’s huge,” says Diener. “We look at the impact of smoking cigarettes on life expectancy, which can cut three years off the life of people who smoke a pack a day. So nine years related to happiness is very significant. There’s a different pattern of biological responses that allows happy people to remain in a healthier state for more years.”
Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and author of “Authentic Happiness,” is hailed as the founder of the new positive psychology movement. While traditional psychology focuses on helping to make the world a less unhappy place by confronting the distresses that bring people down, positive psychology focuses on positive emotions, character traits and institutions to help make the world a more happy place. That shift in scientific thinking has spurred new research into happiness and new efforts to measure the most import contributors to it. While some have said that trying to get happier is like trying to get taller, the positive psychology camp contends that people can, indeed, induce or elevate their happiness by focusing on a number of key contributors. Here’s the latest on what they’ve learned.
Abe Lincoln once said, “I have noticed that folks are generally about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.” Tolstoy was more direct: “If you want to be happy, be.” It’s mind-over-misery and social psychologists say studies have shown that simply choosing to be and acting happy can be habit forming and life changing.
Seligman cites a 35,000-person poll from the National Opinion Research Center, in which 40 percent of married Americans described themselves as “very happy,” compared with just 24 percent of unmarried Americans who said the same. He admits that it could be that happy people are the ones who get married to begin with. But researchers generally agree that marriage offers strong emotional security.
If health and happiness are linked, marriage apparently helps in this regard. A recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health supports findings that married people live longer than those who are widowed, divorced, separated or never-married. The study puts the lifespan of marrieds at seven years longer than non-marrieds.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests that married people are healthier. Based on interviews with 127,545 adults, between 1999 and 2002, the study found that married adults, among other things, are:
•Less likely to be in fair or poor health, and to suffer from health conditions such as headaches and serious psychological distress.
•Less likely to be limited in various activities, including work.
•Less likely to smoke, drink heavily or be physically inactive.
Skip the Kids
Or at least don’t expect them to boost your happiness. While parents might insist their kids are their greatest sources of joy, research shows that the emotional and financial toll that accompanies those precious bundles of joy cancels out any happiness gains. British economists Richard Layard and Andrew Oswold found that children have a statistically insignificant impact—and even a small negative effect—on happiness.
Layard cites a study in which 1,000 working Texas women divided their average day into “episodes,” or specific activities, and indicated their level of happiness during each episode. Of 19 identified activities, childcare ranked 16th in terms of associated happiness, only higher on the scale than commuting and working. The same study showed that when asked to rank groups they’re happiest spending time with, kids came in fourth, after friends, parents/relatives and spouse and only above co-workers, self/alone and boss.
Embracing religion has been shown to contribute to happiness. Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, who directs the World Database of Happiness, a com-ilation of more than 1,500 surveys around the world, found that countries with the highest degree of religious participation also report the highest degrees of happiness.
Psychologists offer three explanations for the link: social support networks involved in organized religion; a firm belief structure and a feeling of being close to God; and “religion itself,” which generally provides for positive experiences and holds the promise of relief from the pain of this life.
Get a Dog
A recent Market & Opinion Research International poll reveals that dogs bring more happiness into people’s lives than steady relationships and job satisfaction. In fact, owning a dog came out atop the happiness index, with 81 percent of the 2,000 people surveyed stating that their happiness “significantly improved” upon getting a dog.
Dogs can make you healthier, too, and not just because of all those daily walks. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that simply stroking a dog prompts a release of so-called “feel good” hormones that lower blood pressure and decrease depression and anxiety.
Getting a dog isn’t something to rush into, though. Daisy Okas, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, says that you’re making a 10- to 15-year commitment with significant lifestyle and financial implications.
Except in situations where basic needs are not met, money doesn’t buy happiness. In a 1995 survey, Diener determined that people on the Forbes 100 list reported being only slightly happier than the average Joe. And a 1978 study found that 22 lottery winners were no happier than a control group.
Say what? Scientists chalk it up to a phenomenon called the “hedonic treadmill.” Basically, regardless of how much you make and how much stuff you accumulate, your expectations continue to stray upwards, you continue to compare yourself against those who have more. As such, you’re never truly satisfied. That treadmill, they say, accounts for the fact that dramatic increases in wealth and standard of living in the past 50 years have resulted in no increases in levels of happiness.
Money might not buy happiness, but friendship does. According to Diener, “We need good friends and family, and we may need to sacrifice to some extent to ensure that we have intimate, loving relationships—people who care about us and about whom we care deeply. The happiest people of all seem to have good friends.”
It’s working hard toward goals—not actually achieving them—that contributes to happiness, according to a group of Swedish researchers. They argue that people need to stay active and find fulfillment through setting goals that are interesting to work on and well-suited to their particular strengths and abilities. “From our research, the people who were most active got the most joy,” said lead researcher Dr. Bengt Bruelde of Gothenburg University in the BBC’s series on happiness. “It may sound tempting to relax on a beach, but if you do it for too long it stops being satisfying.”
Go With Your Flow
In short, play to your strengths. What you’re after, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University and author of “Flow—The Psychology of Happiness,” are situations in which you’re completely engaged in your work and your performance is effortless. That’s a state he calls “flow” and it leads to feelings of great satisfaction, regardless of the nature of the work.
From time to time pry yourself away from cell phones, e-mail, BlackBerry or whatever other 24/7 communications gadgets you’ve come to believe you can’t function without. Jeff Davidson, author of “Breathing Space: Living & Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society” and founder of the Breathing Space Institute, says when you’re constantly plugged in your creativity and spontaneity diminish. You wind up in a continual mode of reacting and responding instead of steering and directing, the activities that most business leaders say bring them the greatest satisfaction.
Psychologists recommend keeping a “gratitude journal,” in which every day, or maybe once a week, you record three to five things you’re thankful for or that you love. They also recommend reaching out to others to express gratitude or appreciation for something they’ve done that touched your life in a positive way.
University of California at Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky led a study that found that, over a six-week period, taking the time to count and document their blessings significantly boosted subjects’ overall satisfaction with life. A no-journals control group had no such gain. Psychologist Robert Emmons, at the University of California at Davis, found that such exercises improved health, raised energy levels and relieved pain and fatigue in patients with neuromuscular disease.
Forgiving those who’ve done you wrong can do wonders for your happiness and health, says Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of “Forgive for Good.” Luskin’s research found that being unforgiving raised stress levels and blood pressure, wore down the immune system and deregulated
the nervous system.
Laugh a Little
You’ve heard it before, but science backs it up: Laughter is the best medicine. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have shown that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels. Situations that provoked laughter in study subjects caused the endothelium, tissue that lines the vessels, to dilate and increase blood flow.
Be a Volunteer
Sure, you could just send a check to support a charity, but happiness experts say getting engaged and personally involved is the way to go. So is getting in the habit of performing smaller, simple, helpful gestures every day—opening the door for someone with their arms full, offering to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor.
Blame Your Parents
If all else fails, chalk your general level of satisfaction (or lack thereof) up to genes. University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken in 1996 published a study of 4,000 sets of twins. After comparing happiness data on identical versus fraternal twins, he concluded that roughly 50 percent of one’s satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. Genes, he said, influence such traits as general disposition, ability to handle stress and being prone to anxiety and depression.
Happiness and stress represent two sides of a biological see-saw. When one is up the other is down. British researchers have pinpointed a measurable indicator of this, the hormone cortisol. When you get stressed, there’s more cortisol in your blood. When you’re happy, there’s less.
Why decrease stress? “In a nutshell, stress will kill you, via high blood pressure, strokes, eating disorders or diabetes,” says Dr. Edward Creagan, a professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic. “But, more importantly, it erodes the spirit.” Herewith, seven ways to get happier by limiting your stress:
Exercise. “The new research shows that you don’t have to work out for 20 to 30 minutes to get the benefit,” says Kathleen Hall, director of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. “You can do a few 10-minute intervals throughout the day. Even if you have just a couple minutes, go up and down a few steps and get your heart rate up.” This prompts the body to up production of endorphins, which create a sense of well-being.
Get a hobby. “Find something other than work that will let you zone out,” says Creagan at Mayo (see page 37).
Clear your calendar. Cut out all but the most essential meetings, prioritizing those that are about decision-making rather than simply sharing information.
Redecorate. Is your desk chair comfortable? Do you have a photo on the wall that spurs positive feelings? Does your filing system work for you? If not, you’re creating long-term, chronic stress that’ll put a hit on your body, not to mention your soul.
Look back. “Think about what you have achieved and give yourself a pat on the back,” says Jessica Pryce-Jones, a partner in iOpener, a British consulting firm that specializes in happiness at work.
Crank up the tunes. “The minute you listen to music you love, you release serotonin,” a brain chemical that affects your mood, says Hall. “If you can hum or sing along, you get an extra immune boost, too.”
Do what you love. “You will never be miserable if you have a passion for something, whether it’s a dog, your family, your work,” says Creagan.
3 quick steps to calm
Step 1 Eat. Starting your day with breakfast increases your metabolism, stabilizes your blood sugar — and staves off the onset of hunger-induced irritability.
Step 2 Breathe. Take a deep breath, inhaling from your diaphragm, pausing and exhaling deeply. Focus on the physical sensation. Repeat twice more. Besides simply creating a moment of quiet reflection, deep breathing increases the flow of oxygen to your brain, which then lowers your heart rate and relaxes your muscles.
Step 3 Talk. Come up with a positive, three- to five-word phrase (e.g., “life is good,” “I am powerful”) to use as a mantra or affirmation in tense moments. The catch: You have to actually believe it in order for it to work. If you do, you’ll lower your cortisol levels, according to Kathleen Hall of The Stress Institute.
You’re Getting Sleepy
Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury to be indulged in as your schedule allows.
Says Dr. Russell Rosenberg, director of the Atlanta Sleep Institute, “There’s plenty of scientific evidence to demonstrate that sleep loss affects moods in a negative way and adds to...stress.”
So if you want to be happier and decrease the amount of stress in your life, you’ve got to catch more Zs. Experts agree that the optimal amount of sleep is 7.5 to 8 hours a night. But Rosenberg says it’s important not to get overwhelmed by the thought of finding several more hours for sleep in an already jam-packed schedule. “Even just adding 30 minutes onto your nightly sleep can help,” he says. “You don’t have to go from getting five hours to eight hours to notice a difference.”
No matter when you go to bed, try to wind down first, whether you read, watch TV or do some gentle stretching (vigorous exercise should be avoided before bedtime). The key, says Rosenberg, is to put a buffer between your work day and bedtime.
Are You Happy?
Dr. Ed Diener, a leading happiness researcher at the University of Illinois, developed a tool for gauging happiness. Called the “Satisfaction with Life Survey,” it’s considered by many in the psychological community
to be a valid indicator of a person’s overall level of happiness, or “subjective well-being.” Think you’re happy? Take Diener’s test and find out.
Using the 1–7 scale shown, indicate your (brutally honest) level of agreement with each of the five statements. When finished, add up your score and check it against the happiness scale.
7= Strongly agree
5= Slightly agree
4= Neither agree nor disagree
3= Slightly disagree
1= Strongly disagree
___ In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.
___ The conditions of my life are excellent.
___ I am satisfied with my life.
___ So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life.
___ If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
31–35 Extremely satisfied
21–25 Slightly satisfied
15–19 Slightly dissatisfied
5–14 Extremely dissatisfied