PROVEN PATHS TO WELL-BEING FROM THE SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS
Happiness is foundational to our existence. Whether conscious or not, we all want to be happy and tend to seek out experiences that improve our sense of happiness. Happiness and our overall health and well-being are closely connected and are often reflected in all that is positive about our lives, including how we think, feel, and perceive.
While it is not difficult to understand that happiness is an important positive experience that shapes the quality of our lives, it is not always easy to understand how to achieve and maintain it. What does it mean to be happy, and how can one cultivate long-lasting happiness?
In this article, we will attempt to answer these questions by taking a look at the science behind happiness, how it is defined and measured, the benefits of positive psychology, and scientifically proven ways to be happier.
What is Happiness?
A complicated and multidimensional concept, happiness can be understood and felt in a variety of ways. At the beginning of the study on human happiness, two main overarching views dominated the scene:
- Hedonic perspective defines happiness as an emotion or state of pleasure, satisfaction, or contentment that we experience momentarily and through time. Happiness, from this perspective, is influenced by our mood, personality and identity, genetics, life circumstances, and events.
- Eudaimonic perspective perceives happiness in alignment with the meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that we derive from our actions and relationships. This is more of a psychological definition of happiness, where happiness is largely influenced by our values, goals, and choices and by our personal growth and development.
Happiness is very much related to both of these concepts, and the combination points towards our physical and personal development and orientation through time. This means that happiness contains both subjective and objective components and that what it means to be happy changes as we do.
Benefits of Happiness
The benefits of happiness extend to all spheres of life, as happiness is known to enrich the quality of life and life satisfaction. Simply put, when happy, we flourish alongside our successes.
Physical benefits of happiness include:
- Lower heart rate and better overall blood pressure
- Improved immune function
- Reduced body aches and pain
- Better resilience, autonomy, and mobility
- Better overall performance at work and higher productivity
- Improved learning, memory, problem-solving, and cognition
- Facilitating desirable traits, such as being more attractive, likable, trustworthy, kind, and generous
On a larger scale, happiness has proven to make the world wealthier and more successful, as revealed by countries such as Bhutan that chose to foster happiness over economic success, only to attain both.
The Science of Happiness
“Present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions – that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others and the world, towards a better understanding of the human mind and brain.” -Nicola De Pisapia, researcher of the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences of the University of Trento.
By understanding what causes happiness, one can effectively learn how to be happy, cultivate more happiness in one’s life, and maintain it.
Research has revealed that happiness can be learned and that we are wired neurobiologically to experience happiness in our daily lives. On a physical level, leading a healthy lifestyle can improve our brain’s ability to be adaptive and flexible, to encourage positive emotions and thoughts, as well as our overall ability to regulate our emotions and dial down on stress. We can enhance this process by practicing to adopt a positive psychology founded on optimism, gratitude, and empathy.
In the following sections, factors affecting happiness and how they can be improved by embodying a positive psychology are discussed.
Factors Affecting Happiness
According to experts, research on happiness has revealed several important factors that affect everyone’s sense of happiness:
- Relationship with overall health
- Attachment and relevance
- Goals, achievements, and competence
- Time and place
- Personal circumstances
More than half of these aspects are psychological, bearing ties to our physical orientation, our position in life, and how we perceive these. Many of the factors within our control have a great influence over those that are not, and these can be optimized by practicing principles of positive psychology.
What is Positive Psychology, and how does it apply to Happiness?
According to one source, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of a healthy and flourishing life.” It is concerned with cultivating a positive mindset, perspective, outlook, experiences, personality traits, relationships, and support networks.
The benefits of positive psychology are similar to the benefits of happiness and extend to our overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that those who embody a positive attitude toward all facets of their lives:
- Live longer
- Breathe better
- Are more immune to infections
- Heal quicker on average
- Have a lower risk for cardiovascular conditions and heart attacks
- Lower levels of perceived pain and stress
- Better management of chronic illness
- Engage in healthier behaviors
- More likely to seek out help when required
Positive psychology applies to happiness and its development in several of the following ways:
Self-concept and Relationship
Identifying with a happy self is important for developing a positive psychology. The relationship with the self shapes how we feel about ourselves, our position in life, what we can achieve, and how we relate to others. This is the main premise from which all positive psychology techniques emerge and can work. It also sets the stage for how we approach our health, social relationships, and whether we feel deserving of happiness or not.
Optimism and Enthusiasm
Optimism is defined as ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something’ and enthusiasm is ‘intense and eager enjoyment, interest or approval.’ Both of these themes, especially optimism, can be practiced and used to reinforce a positive mindset and mood.
Optimism affects happiness by encouraging and facilitating more opportunities for it. Optimistic thinking tends to open the mind to more positive possibilities and perceptions that encourage positive behaviors and emotions as well as better adaptation. Those optimistic tend to be healthier, make healthier choices, and engage in healthier behaviors. According to studies, optimists socialize more, have better immune functioning, and are better problem solvers than their pessimistic counterparts. Optimism can also help to improve sleep and lessen perceived unpleasantness when reflecting on the worst part of the day.
Gratitude and Compassion
These two traits are related to our connectedness as individuals, both of which promote a positive, kind, light, and empathic approach.
Compassion is a kind and caring feeling that arises when witnessing someone’s suffering that motivates the desire to help. Compassion is known to promote neural flexibility (plasticity) in the brain system associated with positive emotions and care. It lowers stress, increases optimism, betters emotional control, and induces a warm, soothed state of being. Compassion can be self or other directed and tends to lead towards acts of kindness. It is theorized that compassion is a necessary adaptation for emotional regulation that enables us to handle perceived stress better in order to help as well as to reach out and connect better with others.
Gratitude is the quality of gratefulness or thankfulness, in which one appreciates something or someone and is receptive or ready to reciprocate. Gratitude is known to enhance optimism and happiness yet does not necessarily improve emotional resilience, whereas compassion does. Feeling grateful and compassionate both promote empathy, which positively strengthens our self-image, self-fulfillment, and our ability to connect with others.
Creative Pursuit and Expression
Creative pursuit engages the brain in a way that promotes new ideas, inspiration, motivation, and problem-solving ability, which can spur one towards achievement and satisfaction. It is not limited to the arts and can be expressed in any sphere of life. The link between creativity and happiness is bidirectional and reciprocal. On the one hand, happiness can foster creativity by enhancing our cognitive flexibility, motivation, curiosity, and openness to new experiences. On the other hand, creativity can boost happiness by providing us with joy, satisfaction, self-expression, and self-actualization. It also gives us an opportunity to practice optimism, to feel gratitude, and to achieve more in a more satisfying way.
Following on from compassion and gratitude, studies have shown that happier people are more likely to be social and that those who emphasize improving their happiness through social means are often more successful than through other methods. Placing oneself second to others and maintaining an empathic approach appears to generate a lot more happiness than focusing on the self. Researchers are still studying why this is the case, although it likely verges on social cognition, compassion, empathy, a positive self-image, and a higher degree of fulfillment. Empathy might also help happiness to multiply amongst happy communities and be another reason why being social is conducive.
Being healthier is conducive to happiness, and happiness is conducive to making healthier choices and being healthier. Our physical state of health can influence our state of happiness, especially by lowering resilience and making one vulnerable to stress or emotional volatility. Science has shown that genetic factors can influence happiness in a person by 35-50%, which good health practices can serve to positively enhance. One’s psychological approach towards one’s physical well-being is also important, as even people struggling with chronic health conditions can be happier than those without.
Happiness Across the Lifespan
There are three different approaches to happiness that have been linked to our psychological development through time. These include:
- Approach or Wanting: Seeking out pleasurable experiences for happiness and being motivated by exploration and discovery. This is most frequent among the youth.
- Avoidance or Escape: Finding happiness in relief from avoiding stressful situations and processing them. In this case, a stressful situation is not required to find happiness, yet keeping stress to a minimum is, which also induces relief in the absence of a true stressor. This approach is more common in middle-aged individuals.
- Assertion or Non-Wanting: Happiness is not found in wanting pleasure or abiding in relief. It is instead found in asserting itself, accepting one’s situation, and finding a deeper sense of satisfaction, quiescence, and inner joy as a result. In this approach, ordinary constraints previously viewed as essential for happiness dwindle, especially in the face of looming mortality. Studies highlight that this approach to happiness is most common in the elderly and that they tend to be the happiest as a result.
While we might tend to experience one or the other at various stages of life, individuals may experience all three at any given time. Understanding these approaches and their pros and cons can contribute to your understanding of what makes you happy and how you can maximize it.
How is Happiness Measured?
Sometimes thinking one is not happy is one of the only things standing in the way of being happy. In this case, it can help to keep track of one’s happiness levels through time to make sure one is making progress or in the right ballpark.
How is happiness measured? As explained above, every person’s sense of happiness is personal to them and will depend upon individual factors. Scientists have been rating people’s subjective happiness through some of the following methods:
- Satisfaction with life scale, which assesses how closely people’s lives match their ideal life and sense of related happiness or satisfaction.
- Positive and negative affect schedules, which gauges how often a list of 20 emotions are experienced within a certain period of time.
- Subjective happiness scale rates a person’s subjective sense of happiness by asking them to rate how happy they think they are and how happy they are compared to other people.
- Physiological and behavioral measurements of happiness and stress can contribute to an understanding of one’s mood, health, and sense of happiness.
To keep track of one’s happiness on a personal level, it is not necessary to make use of these tests, yet their basic elements can be useful as they describe one’s mood through time, how satisfied one is with life, whether they identify as a happy person or not as well as how much physical factors contribute towards their sense of well-being.
Using these elements, one can track themselves and start to identify factors that make them happy or not. These details can then be used to cultivate happiness and minimize things that detract from it.
Secrets to Happiness
The secret to happiness is ultimately understanding that it can be learned, knowing what contributes and what detracts from it, and dedicating time to cultivating it.
The below tips are general, yet everyone’s happiness is subjective. Before starting to put positive psychology techniques to use, the first step is to analyze oneself and one's life to identify the factors that make one happy and those that do not. This means assessing the strengths and weaknesses (from the perspective of one’s happiness) inherent in one’s physical, psychological, and emotional state of being, one’s environment and circumstances, one’s goals and aspirations as well as one’s relationships. This info can then be used to optimize positivity and happiness, and minimize negativity and a lack of happiness.
If one battles with this or incorporates positive psychology in general, it may be beneficial to seek out professional help from a skilled psychotherapist who can guide you through and help you change your life for the better using positive psychology techniques.
Here are a few tried and trusted ways to be happier that, when applied, have increased happiness for many people:
- Acknowledge the good: One of the simplest ways to increase our happiness is to appreciate the positive aspects of our lives. This can be done by keeping a gratitude journal, writing a gratitude letter, or sharing our joys with others. Numerous studies have shown that using this strategy can reduce stress and depression. By acknowledging the good, we enhance our positive emotions, strengthen our relationships, and increase our optimism.
- Add happiness through subtraction: Another way to increase our happiness is to remove or reduce the negative aspects of our lives. This can be done by practicing forgiveness, avoiding overthinking, or simplifying our lifestyle. The underlying principle here is to dial down on our attachments to things that might be standing in the way of our happiness. By adding happiness through subtraction, we decrease our negative emotions, heal our wounds, and free up our resources.
- Eliminate negative bias and traits: Many of these tips and techniques can help to improve overall positive thinking and enhance positive traits that are conducive to maintaining happiness. Yet, without being aware of negative traits and working towards eliminating them, it is not enough alone to promote positive ones. The four main traits that are known to undermine happiness the most are perfectionism, comparison, materialism, and greed. Try eliminating these from your life and see if it improves your overall level of happiness.
- Find meaning and purpose: A third way to increase our happiness is to engage in activities that align with our values and goals. This can be done by discovering our strengths, pursuing our passions, and contributing to a cause. To understand how to go about this, one needs to analyze themselves, what they have to offer that can make the world a better place, and what they want to offer in doing so. By finding meaning and purpose, we enrich our experiences, express our true selves, and make a positive difference.
- Use your strengths: A fourth way to increase our happiness is to apply our talents and abilities to various domains of our lives. This can be done by taking a strengths test, finding flow activities, or creating a strengths portfolio. By using our strengths, we enhance our competence, challenge ourselves, and achieve our potential.
- Connect with others: A fifth way to increase our happiness is to cultivate and maintain positive relationships with others. This can be done by practicing kindness and compassion, expressing gratitude, or savoring shared moments. By connecting with others, we increase our belongingness, receive and give support, and amplify our happiness. It can also be good to be aware of the impact a relationship has on one and to spend more time on relationships that promote positive qualities in oneself and the other. You may need to assess your social needs if you find it difficult to maintain positive relationships with others.
- Don’t overdo it: Trying too hard does not help cultivate happiness. It often leads to self-fixation or selfishness. A less specific approach to happiness can be beneficial in this regard. Happiness should not be your goal. Your goals and achievements and how you feel about them ought to reflect on your level of happiness.
- Prioritize happiness over wealth: Money can contribute towards happiness but only up to a certain degree and only when spent on pursuits of happiness. Make your happiness and your goals the main focus, working towards them rather than earning money. This is more rewarding and less stressful in the long run.
- Cultivate religious or spiritual faith: The roots of connection are deeper than engaging in meaningful social relationships. Our ability to connect with ourselves, others, and the divine reinforces our ability to feel happy, empathic, and compassionate. There is some evidence that those who cultivate religious or spiritual faith are often shown to be happier across studies.
Happiness is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that can be defined, measured, and experienced in different ways. It is also important for our health and well-being, as it brings many benefits to our physical, mental, social, and professional lives. Happiness is not a fixed trait that we are born with or without, but a skill that we can learn and practice with intention and effort. Research has identified many strategies that can help us cultivate and sustain happiness in our lives, such as acknowledging the good, adding happiness through subtraction, finding meaning and purpose, using our strengths, and connecting with others. By applying these strategies, we can make happiness a more permanent fixture in our lives.
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