The Science of Happiness

Happiness Is …



In pages crammed with variables, scientists can solve complex formulas. Yet one of today’s most slippery equations comes down to two keystrokes: colon, right parenthesis. How do we arrive at J — the universal symbol of happiness?

After decades of treating our neuroses, psychologists now are parsing the sunny upside of feelings, exploring how mind governs mood, and how we can capture—and cultivate—happiness. The feel-good field of “positive psychology” has staked a claim to academia, with classes in happiness given everywhere from Pace University to Harvard. Our fixation even has spawned a backlash, captured in new titles, like Against Happiness, that frown upon unbridled ecstasy. So does the pursuit of happiness pay off? And where do we find it?

In our DNA, for starters. “Happiness is predetermined,” declares Linda Bastone, an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College, SUNY, who studies emotions. “But that doesn’t mean it’s immutable.” From birth, children’s temperaments are so markedly apparent that “parents can detect them immediately,” maintains Alan Kazdin, president of the American Psychological Assoc­iation and professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. Parents often typify happy babies as “easygoing,” and more sullen siblings as “fussy or irritable.” But while temperament may be biological, Kazdin notes that nature and nurture work in a subtle give-and-take to shape personality. “Even if you come into the world very grumpy,” says Kazdin, “you may be able to be reared out of it.”

That begs the mother of all questions: can we raise a happy child? “Yes,” Kazdin answers. He advises creating a low-stress environment, with minimal tension and routines shaped around rituals such as Sunday pancake breakfasts or summer weekends at the pool. “However mundane,” he says, “those regularities bring stability to family life, promote happiness, and keep anxiety low for all.”

The work of developmental psychologist Barbara H. Fiese supports these claims. Integrating her own studies with a review of past research on family routines and rituals, Fiese consistently finds a strong association between shared, repetitive household activities and healthier, happier, more well-adjusted children. Specifically, routines such as a consistent dinnertime and bedtime, chores, and visiting other relatives were among the ones considered most effective. The repetitive nature of the family mealtime in particular, Fiese notes in her 2006 book, Family Routines and Rituals, allows families to get to know each other better, become more cohesive, and simply enjoy each other’s company.

Structure’s polar opposite is chaos—defined by disruptions, intrusions into ritual, and sharp departures from routine. “Chaos can foster anxiety and unhappiness,” Kazdin says. While the Blackberry has no place at the table unless it’s baked into a cobbler, parents should permit some downtime to balance a ledger of structured activity. “Research shows kids are happier when they have some time on their own, away from adults’ supervision and scrutiny,” reports clinical psychologist Paul Donahue, author of Parenting without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters, and director of Child Development Associates. Finally, Kazdin recom­mends that parents help their children build competencies—one or two areas in which they can excel, deriving ongoing pride.

More good news: science gives us hope that even the crabbiest kids can outgrow their unhappiness. Paul Griffin has taught a course on positive psychology at Pace for four years. “I got on the bandwagon early,” he says. His research has contravened assumptions that older people are less happy. “Rigorous research finds older people are happier than younger people, especially as they move from middle age upward,” he writes in the 2006 edition of the Journal of Research in Personality, although he notes that once people hit age 75, happiness declines. Psychologists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald traced a “U-shaped” curve of happiness in America and Western Europe, with levels higher in early and late adulthood and lower in the middle—dipping lowest around the age of 40.

So what are the strongest predictors of happiness and life satisfaction? Topping the list is extroversion. “Those who are sociable, engaged, and active tend to be happier than their opposites,” says Bastone, who concedes it can be difficult to distinguish between cause and effect. “Studies showing a relationship between extroversion and happiness have typically construed and measured extroversion as a trait—an enduring disposition—that’s an underlying cause of happi­ness.  However, one might argue that the behaviors characteristic of this trait might result from being happy.”

Griffin ticks off other correlates of happiness: health, marriage, strong friendships, and finances—to some extent. “Money buys happiness only to a certain point.” Beyond that, experts say, material goods make little difference in happiness levels—a shift known as the law of diminishing returns. “It’s in places like Westchester,” Griffin says, “where you see anxiety over money that often leads to less happiness.”

Of course, perhaps we’re not meant to float through life on Cloud Nine. In prehistoric times, that blissful oblivion would send us smack into the jaws of a sabertooth tiger—a sure way to ruin the day. “From a survival standpoint, our brains are hardwired to pick up the negative,” Kazdin says, stressing that attunement to adverse events is not the same as anxiety over them. A new study, led by psychology professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, bolsters the idea that mild contentment is preferable to full-blown elation, because people who fall just a notch or two below “completely satisfied” on self-reported scales are driven to strive toward better things—more food, better mates, a higher-paying job—without growing too complacent. Diener’s research team, which reported its results recently in the Association of Psychological Science journal

Perspectives on Psychological Science examined several studies of happiness and life outcomes—including data from the World Values Study, an analysis of 120,000 people from 96 countries—to evaluate optimum levels of happiness. The data revealed that those who rated their life satisfaction at eight or nine out of 10 made more money than those who reported a perfect 10. Moreover, in four studies that followed subjects’ well-being for several years, the happiest people turned out to have less education and lower incomes than those who were less happy.

On the flip side, how do we avoid plunging into despair? Credit the mental mechanisms that seem to defend our happiness from the ravages of reality. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert describes a tendency to “cook the facts” so they support conclusions we favor—whether that means comparing ourselves to others worse off, or seeking information that confirms our biases while ig­noring contradictory facts. Gilbert calls this defense a function of our “psychological immune system,” which rallies to defend our minds just as our white blood cells and antibodies guard the body.

To extend this metaphor, is happiness contagious? Can we feed off the vibes of our friends and neighbors, and is Westchester a happy place to live? In his travelogue, The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner traversed the world to seek out the happiest places and populations on earth. Among his findings: “Those who commute long distances are less happy than those who don’t—not just because of the stress of commuting but because of the opportunity cost.” Your daily stint on the Metro-North eats into your time with family and friends.

Still, a Gallup Poll from December 2007 finds that we are “generally content” with our lives. Most Americans maintain they are generally happy, with a slim majority reporting they are “very happy.” More than eight in 10 say they are satisfied with their personal lives. Like many psychologists, Weiner insists that greater affluence does not statistically make people happier. Our standard of living factors into our feeling of happiness to the extent that we compare ourselves to others. “Residents of Westchester are not comparing themselves to people of Haiti, or even Brooklyn,” says Weiner, “but to similar folks down the road.” Comparing ourselves to those worse off tends to make us feel happier. But unless we’re primed or prompted to do so, we’re more apt to measure ourselves against our neighbors, making us less content.

Rivaling our narrow frame of reference is our short memory. Studies of lottery winners and paraplegics show that, after a year, both groups did not differ markedly in happiness. To explain, Griffin invokes the positive-psychology tenet of set-point theory, which posits that even after a drastic change of fortune—be it a windfall or a setback—we return to the same levels of happiness as before, following a brief spurt of euphoria or despair. If true, this would tend to mitigate the effects that nature or nurture might have on influencing mood. But Bastone argues that “the set point is a bit too rigid,” citing more recent studies that peg major events, like the death of a spouse or the loss of a job, to more enduring changes in happiness scores. The idea that you can “re-program” a set point has found tremendous favor in pop culture and drives sales of new books like The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California. Lyubomirsky claims that 40 percent of happiness falls within our control, 50 percent is genetic, and the rest is subject to circumstance. Building on interviews and research, she details “happiness-intervention strategies” like writing letters of gratitude, arguing with pessimistic thoughts, relishing tiny pleasures like a hot bath, and reflecting on the best parts of one’s day. “Breathing techniques and biofeedback work,” Bastone says. If nothing else, it’s a way to offset the stress of chasing happiness.

If you still don’t feel moved to sing from the rooftops, consider refining your notion of happiness. Often, says Bastone, true bliss is found not in surges of euphoria but in the simpler, quieter pleasures of engagement: immersion in enjoyable pastimes which elicit a state of mind called “flow,” marked by mental absorption and double-takes at the clock. “We’re less focused on this version of happiness than on pleasurable pursuits,” she says. “But losing ourselves in activities makes us happy in the moment.” The pleasure-seeking hordes, though, will likely keep chasing down that smiley face—an icon not just for email, but for life.

Freelance writer Melissa Pheterson is based in New Haven, and specializes in health, nutrition, and fitness. Her work has appeared on iVillage.com, Salon.com, and in the Jerusalem Post.