A recipe for happiness | Science News for Students

A recipe for happiness

Want to be happier? Recent studies show that science can help.
Nov 18, 2007 — 12:00 am EST
happy girl

Above all else, most people say that they want their kids to be happy.

C. Szeto/Wikipedia

It feels good to be happy. Laughing is fun. And most people like to have a good time.

"If you ask people what they want for their children, most say, 'I want them to be happy,'" says psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside.


Not that long ago, however, joy wasn't considered serious enough for psychologists to study. These scientists traditionally helped people with depression or other mental illnesses.

"When I started doing research on this 18 years ago," Lyubomirsky says, happiness "was not considered a scientific topic."

But today, happiness is a hot subject of research. As part of a growing field called positive psychology, more and more researchers are looking for ways to help people become happier, even if they don't feel depressed to begin with. And there are plenty of reasons why happiness is a worthy goal.

It took a while for scientists to start taking happiness seriously.

It took a while for scientists to start taking happiness seriously.

Pumbaa/Wikipedia

Recent studies suggest that, among other benefits, happy people are healthier (see "Smiles Turn Away Colds"), have more friends, and make more money than their sadder peers, Lyubomirsky says. And here's the really good news: Research now suggests that there are easy things people can do to make themselves happier.

How happy are you?

The field of positive psychology has had to overcome significant obstacles. For one thing, it's difficult to scientifically measure happiness. It's also hard to compare one person's sense of well-being with another's.

For example, if your best friend says she feels great, but she's crying a lot and acting more depressed than usual, would you rate her as happy or sad for the purposes of a scientific study? Likewise, on a scale of 1 to 10, how can we be sure that my "8" is happier than your "6?"

"No one can tell you how happy you are," Lyubomirsky says. "Who's to say who's right?"

In recent years, however, researchers have developed what they consider to be accurate measurements of happiness. One technique involves looking at how often people genuinely smile in their daily lives.

It's easy to tell real smiles from the fake smiles people plaster on for photographs. Genuine smiles engage the corners of the eyes and involve muscles around the mouth that fake smilers can't control.

You can tell if a person's smile is real or fake by looking at his or her eyes.

You can tell if a person's smile is real or fake by looking at his or her eyes.

Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/Wikipedia

In their studies, scientists also tell people to describe how happy they feel. They ask subjects how satisfied they are with their lives. And they get people to describe everything they did over a course of a day and how they felt about each activity.

Scientists also sometimes look at images of the brain for clues: An area called the left frontal cortex tends to work harder in people who are happier. This area "lights up," showing more activity in brain scans.

Get happy

Scientists now know that people are born with a general tendency toward a certain level of happiness, and they tend to maintain that mood in their day-to-day lives. For example, you probably know kids who are bubbly and cheerful most of the time as well as kids who are generally more quiet and serious.

About half of a person's "happiness quotient" comes from the personality he or she is born with. Extreme events, such as winning a lottery or being injured in an accident, can cause temporary bursts of happiness or sadness. But eventually, people return to about the same emotional state they're normally at.

So, what about the other half of the happiness quotient? About 10 percent of that quotient depends on external circumstances, such as how much money people make or how healthy they are. The remaining 40 percent, says Lyubomirsky, is entirely up to you. What's more, her work suggests a few strategies for making yourself happier, no matter how happy or sad you are to begin with.

Researchers have learned that how much money you have determines only a small percentage of your happiness quotient.

Researchers have learned that how much money you have determines only a small percentage of your happiness quotient.

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In one recent study, she and colleagues assigned more than 300 college students to complete one of three activities. For 15 minutes a week over 8 weeks, one group of these students wrote about what their lives would be like in the future if all their hopes and dreams came true.

A second group spent the same amount of time writing letters to people who had done things in the past that the letter writers were grateful for. A third group of students simply listed everything they had done over the past 7 days.

The objective of this experiment was to find out whether expressing optimism about the future or gratitude about the past could make a person happier. (The third group allowed the researchers to compare whether writing alone made a difference.)

Results backed previous research, which had shown that expressing optimism and gratitude lead to an improved sense of well-being. But the improvement came about, Lyubomirsky adds, only for the students that were most motivated to do the activity.

In other words, only people who really wanted to be happier were able to make that happen. The simple process of writing had no effect on wellbeing.

Writing thank-you notes can make you feel happier.

Writing thank-you notes can make you feel happier.

iStockphoto.com

Lyubomirsky found that motivated students maintained their improved sense of happiness for at least 9 months after the study ended. (After 9 months, she stopped checking.)

"That is actually amazing," she says. "It is possible they might have changed their attitudes toward life" just by writing thank-you notes and having optimistic thoughts.

A happier you

It's not always easy to be a kid. Between 15 and 20 percent of middle schoolers in the United States experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression, says Bruce Cuthbert, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. And research shows that, without help, stress and anxiety tend to get worse over time.

It's normal to feel sad occasionally, but if you're depressed most of the time, it may help to talk to a psychologist.

It's normal to feel sad occasionally, but if you're depressed most of the time, it may help to talk to a psychologist.

iStockphoto.com

If you don't feel happy today, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, Cuthbert says. But if you want to feel better, there are lots of things you can do to improve your mood.

Studies have shown that the happiest people are those who frequently do kind things for both friends and strangers. Other research-backed happiness boosters include keeping a diary of your future dreams, setting and pursuing goals, making friends and family members a big part of your life, and exercising regularly.

"Those are things anyone can do," Lyubomirsky says, "no matter how young you are."


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