Since 1972, according to surveys funded by the National Science Foundation, only about one-third of Americans have described themselves as “very happy.”
Since 2004, the share of Americans who identify themselves as optimists has dropped from 79 percent to 50 percent. More than 20 percent of us will suffer from a mood disorder at some point in our lifetimes and more than 30 percent from an anxiety disorder.
What Do We Know about Happiness?
According to Nancy Segal, a psychologist at California State University, Fullerton, and author of Born Together—Reared Apart, there is some evidence that genetics plays a role in happiness. Exactly what role and how much of a role are matters of opinion. Segal believes the role of genetics is substantial. Others consider the role of genetics to be less significant.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1937, is one of the most comprehensive studies of mental and physical well-being ever conducted. Research led by Dr. George Vaillant followed the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores for seventy-two years.
Vaillant identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically. The seven major factors that Vaillant found to be significant in determining our health and happiness were employing mature adaptations, education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise, and a healthy weight.
Of the 106 men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half of them (by age 80) were what Vaillant called “happy-well,” and only 7.5 percent ended up as “sad-sick.” Of those who had three or fewer of these factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80.
Also, those with three or fewer of these factors at 50, were three times as likely to be dead at 80, than those who had four or more of these factors in their favor.
Employing mature adaptations was considered one of the most important of the seven factors. Vaillant concluded that the way we “adapt” to our circumstances played a major role in our physical and mental health and happiness. He said:
“Much of what is labeled mental illness simply reflects our unwise deployment of defense mechanisms. Such mechanisms are analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, coping with an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl. Humans, when confronted with irritants, engage in unconscious but often creative behavior.
To deal with the circumstances we encounter, we adapt. How we adapt has a major influence on our health and well-being. The unhealthiest adaptations include paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania. One level up are unhealthy adaptations involving uncontrolled behaviors and imaginings, such as acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy.
The healthiest or mature adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), and sublimation ( finding outlets for potentially harmful feelings, like channeling aggression into sports; or potentially distracting feelings, like channeling fantasies into writing).
Vaillant also found that relationships played a critical role in a healthy and happy life. “It is social aptitude,” he wrote, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” When asked what he had learned from the study, Vaillant said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
What Factors Contribute to Happiness?
Money. Numerous studies have found that money can make people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life. A study led by psychologist Edward Diener of the University of Illinois, analyzed the responses of 806,526 people in 135 countries collected over the course of six years. It found that income corresponds more or less directly to happiness but only if a person’s wealth and aspirations keep pace. “Money can boost happiness if it allows people to obtain more of the things they need and desire,” says Diener. “But when their desires outpace what they can afford, even rising income can be accompanied by falling feelings of well-being.”
Although the true effect of money on happiness may be the subject of some debate, there is universal agreement that unemployment and poverty clearly lead to unhappiness, often resulting in divorce, depression, disease, and even suicide.
Work. Many believe that work is essential to happiness. Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd U.S. president) said,“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
Optimism. In his book Learned Optimism, Martin E. P. Seligman points out that optimism lessens stress and increases longevity. He says, “Optimists are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” According to studies published by The Journal of Positive Psychology, just trying to be happy can boost your emotional well-being. Those who actively tried to feel happier in the studies reported the highest level of positive moods.
Giving. Studies have shown that people who volunteer and do things for others are generally happier and experience better physical health and less depression. A study published in the journal Science found that spending money on other people has a more direct impact on one’s happiness than spending money on oneself.
Exercise. Exercise has been shown to ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, thanks to the various brain chemicals that are released that amplify feelings of happiness and relaxation.
Laughter. A 2010 study that focused on the effects of laughter on the body concluded, “The body’s response to repetitive laughter is similar to the effect of repetitive exercise.” The study found that some of the benefits associated with working out, like a healthy immune system, controlled appetite, and improved cholesterol can also be achieved through laughter.
Music. Music has also been linked to happiness. Over a three-month period, researchers from the Group Health Research Institute found that patients who simply listened to music had the same decreased anxiety symptoms as those who had hour-long massages.
Relationships. A study published in Psychological Science found that those who take part in more substantive conversations and less trivial chitchat experienced more feelings of satisfaction. Spending real, meaningful time interacting with the people you care about (not texting and tweeting) is important to increasing your sense of well-being.“ There’s a deep need to have a sense of belonging that comes from having personal interactions with friends,” says John Cacioppo, the director of the Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. While social media keeps us in touch on a superficial level, truly loving, responsive interactions can only take place in person.
Spiritual/Religious Practice. Studies point to a link between religious and spiritual practice and happiness. As Ellen L. Idler writes in The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices, “ Transcendent spiritual and religious experiences have a positive, healing, restorative effect, especially if they are built in to one’s daily life.” Spiritual and religious practice can be a very important part of people’s lives. To some people, it is the most important part of their lives. This as a very personal and individual choice. If this is something that is important to you, there are many spiritual and religious resources that are available to you in virtually every community.
Choice. According to Remez Sasson, founder of Success Consciousness, happiness lies within each of us. We tend to associate it with external events, possessions, and people. Sasson believes it actually has more to do with our thoughts than with external realities. He argues that happiness is about attitude and choice. “Happiness is always with us,” he says, “but like clouds that block the sun, our happiness is blocked by our thoughts, desires and fears.” Sasson says that we need to choose to be happy. We need to relax our minds and look within to experience happiness. He links past happiness as a way to affect current actions: Think about how you felt when you had a success—even when you were a child—and then visualize that event and feel those same feelings. Think about what you want to achieve now, and place your current goal together with those earlier happy feelings. Sasson says, “… thoughts charged with emotion materialize faster.”
Mindfulness. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, holds a similar view, suggesting that we use mindfulness techniques to achieve feelings of happiness. Mindfulness means being present and in the moment and observing in a nonjudgmental way. Mindfulness comes from Buddhism and is key to meditation in that tradition. Stop and smell the roses. Look up at the sky on a bright, sunny day and marvel at the passing clouds. When you eat something wonderful, smell it, touch it, savor it, stop and think about each bite that you take. Be mindful of your daily activities and the beauty in nature that surrounds you.
Health. Happiness is also tied to health. Longevity guru Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco, points to four decades of research that support a simple prescription for improved health: “Eat well, move more, stress less, and love more.”
In sum, happiness comes from a variety of sources in our lives, and we all have the power to control and increase our levels of happiness in many ways. Attitude is important. Relationships and compassion are important. Adaptation—how you deal with life’s challenges—is extremely important. You need to be realistic. Adjust your needs, expectations, and wishes to fit reality. Exercise, laughter, and enjoying life’s simple pleasures, like listening to music and taking time to be with good friends, are essential. Meditation, mindfulness, and spirituality enhance our appreciation of each day. To be happy, we must first look within ourselves and make conscious choices. Choose to be happy!