The growing field of positive psychology reveals what really matters — and it may not be what you think.
In recent years, however, psychologists have begun to ask a much different questions: how is it possible to live the best life? What makes us happiest? In what’s now called the field of positive psychology, researchers use scientific methods such as controlled studies to try to identify the elements of a well-loved, fulfilling life.
They reveal that happiness is easier than you might think. In “The How of Happiness” (Penguin, 2007), Sonya Lyubomirsky, a positive psychology researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, posits that 40 percent of our happiness depends on our attitudes and activities. Half of happiness, she says, is determined by what researchers call our natural “set point,” which is largely genetic. (Although the science is not particularly exact, some research suggests a 33-percent influence of genetics on overall happiness. Higher levels of reported happiness has been associated with Scandinavian or Danish ancestry.) The remaining 10 percent depends on circumstances. This means a couple of things: the difference between being a millionaire and a pauper amounts to just 10 percent of happiness — and nearly half of our ability to be happy is within our own control.
Here’s some of what positive psychology has discovered about the keys to lasting happiness. You might be surprised as much by what doesn’t make you happy as what does:
Sleep and eat well. These two elements of daily life have a major impact on overall mood. Chronic poor nutrition and lack of sleep can lead to anxiety and depression, not to mention mental fatigue, low energy, and, ultimately, illness. Are you often hungry, and as a result grumpy, without realizing it? Feelings of hunger can lead to mood changes that add up over time, never mind cascade to more negative consequences (say, when constant squabbling with a partner or coworkers leads to conflict, such as divorce or job loss). Taking care of these basics can pay off in daily mood boosts as well as significantly reduced illness over time, which has a huge happiness impact.
Exercise and get outdoors. Exercise has been found to be more effective than antidepressants in some studies, as well as longer lasting. It will also make you feel better about your body and improve self-image. At the same time, you’ll be taking care of your health in long-lasting ways, meaning you’ll avoid misery-inducing illness down the road. Better yet, exercise outdoors: peaceful settings in nature boost mood and feelings of peacefulness, according to a British study of 20,000 participants.
Practice gratitude. In two well-known studies, participants who wrote down several things they were thankful for once a week, and those who wrote thank-you letters to people they felt grateful toward both experienced lasting boosts in happiness and well-being, and even reported fewer health complaints.
A crucial element of practicing gratitude: avoid comparing yourself to others. While you may know instinctively that comparisons can make you miserable, science confirms it. “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” Lyubomirsky points out in “The How of Happiness.” “People who pay too much attention to social comparisons find themselves chronically vulnerable, threatened, and insecure.” If you must, compare yourself to those have less, rather than more.
Help others and cultivate social connections. Being kind to others — such as by buying a gift — has been shown to produce greater happiness than buying something for oneself. In “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being” (Free Press: 2011), Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, writes: “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” So volunteer, or regularly give time or money to others in some way. The benefits to yourself may be far greater than you think.
In addition, cultivate social relationships. One study put a dollar amount on increased social interaction with friends and family and found it’s worth the equivalent of an extra $130,000 a year in your pocket. “Actual changes in income, on the other hand,” says the study author, were found to “buy very little happiness.”
Pursue meaningful work. Many people think they’d be happiest with their feet up and the TV remote in hand, never having to do anything at all. The truth is, however, that boredom and dissatisfaction at work are some of the greatest causes of unhappiness. In “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Harper Perennial, 2008), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reports a study he did that found people were happiest when deeply absorbed in challenging, absorbing work — whether that was calculating numbers in a spreadsheet, playing an instrument, or throwing pottery on a wheel. The lesson: we need meaningful work and goals in order to feel truly content and satisfied with our lives. Make sure yours are in line with your personal values and beliefs (you can take a number of questionnaires designed to elicit goals specifically tailored to you at Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center website.
The most surprising truths of positive psychology: it’s not money, success, beauty, or possessions that make us happiest over time, but giving to others, having good relationships, and being able to pursue meaningful work. By focusing on the 40 percent of your life you can control, this new science suggests you can increase your happiness well beyond perhaps even your wildest expectations.
February 21, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA