The Science of Happiness Post 2: What Is Happiness and Why Does It Matter

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a positive psychology researcher and world pioneer in the study of happiness, describes happiness in her 2008 book The How of Happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” Researchers use the terms subjective well-being, positive affects, and life satisfaction when they want to measure happiness, as Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains. “Scientists measure subjective well-being by simply asking people how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing.”

Simon-Thomas adds that Lyubomirsky’s definition of happiness “resonates with the approach the Greater Good Science Center takes toward happiness: It captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life—and suggests how these properties of happiness complement each other.” Happiness, thus, does not refer to a permanent state of bliss where people remain oblivious to negative emotions. Much to the contrary, the state of happiness and well-being include the acceptance of anger, fear, sadness, or negative emotions and situations that will invariably occur in life.

Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, highlights the importance of studying happiness specially in times when loneliness, narcissism, lack of empathy, and inequality statistics are growing in our modern societies. He summarizes the scientifically proven benefits of happiness as follows: “Happiness is associated with greater longevity; decreased chronic pain; increased immune activity; better cardiovascular health; and decreased likelihood of diabetes, stroke, cancer mortality, and fatal accidents. Happy people have better social relationships, they have more friends, they are judged warmer and intelligent, and less selfish, and are more likely to get assistance and trust. Happy people who get married are less likely to get divorced and feel more love and fulfillment. Finally, happiness can boost creativity and innovation for us and our subordinates at work, if we happen to be managers.”

In case the previous benefits were not enough reasons to search for happiness—like we really needed reasons to pay that terrible price—Kira Newman, managing editor of the Greater Good Magazine, explains in her article Six Ways Happiness Is Good for Your Health why we should strive to be happier. Her list reads as follows: 1) Happiness protects your heart, 2) Happiness strengthen your immune system, 3) Happiness combats stress, 4) Happy people have fewer aches and pains, 5) Happiness combats disease and disability, and 6) Happiness lengthens our lives.   

According to Barbara Fredrickson, one of the most highly cited scholars worldwide in the psychology of positive emotions, “Happiness is understandable, obtainable, and teachable.” She explains that there are two core truths about positive emotions: One is that they open the boundaries of our minds and hearts, changing our outlook on the environment; the second is that they transform us for the better. Both these scientifically proven truths are not just forms of speech, but real biological transformations: “We know that positive emotions widen the scope of what people are scanning for in the environment; they increase the expanse of their peripheral vision.” She explains that by looking at the background as well as the foreground, people are able to assess the bigger picture, to see more possibilities, be more creative, and make better decisions. On a cellular level, the transformation is also real: “The latest science suggests that the pace of cell renewal and the form of cell renewal doesn’t just follow some predetermined DNA script. Our emotions affect that level of cellular change. And so that’s completely consistent with the broader lesson within my work, which is that positive emotions broaden and open our awareness and over time change who we are in the future… If we increase our daily diet of positive emotions, we change who we are, we change our ways of being in the world in important ways.”

But what is it that happy people do and think? How do they behave? How can people learn to lead happier and more flourishing lives? These questions have been at the heart of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research since she began studying happiness. “Research shows that happy people are really good at relationships; if you look at the happiest people, they all have really stable, fulfilling relationships, partnerships, and friends… Happy people are more grateful, helpful, and philanthropic, and they tend to be more optimistic about the future; they are more likely to live in the present… Happy people tend to savor pleasures in their life; they make physical activity a habit; they are often spiritual, or religious. Spirituality and religion aren’t a prerequisite for happiness, but it is correlated with happiness. And happier people are deeply committed to goals; they have significant meaningful life goals that they are pursuing, whether it’s raising moral children, or building a house, or advancing in their career.”

In the following eight posts I will be zooming in on some of the main traits of happiness, and how can we learn to achieve more well-being. Let’s begin with the importance of social connection.

%d bloggers like this: