happiness science

Is There a Science to Happiness?

It’s not exactly “don’t worry, be happy,” but a growing interest in positive psychology has spurred a movement to examine what causes people to be happy and how we can all achieve happiness.

Positive psychology has been referred to frequently as the science of happiness. In fact, there is an entire eight-week course via the University of California, Berkeley, that people interested in the science behind happiness can take for free.

But how do you measure happiness (which is sometimes called mindfulness) in order to study it?

Shawn Achor, one of the current leaders in the movement, told fellow psychologists and educators this summer at the International Positive Education Network’s I-PEN festival that to quantify happiness, you have to correct your definition of it.

“We often confuse happiness with pleasure, which can be fleeting,” Achor told the group in July. “Happiness is the joy you feel moving toward your potential. Joy is motivating.”

“Happiness is not having a lot of privilege or money,” said Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who teaches the Science of Happiness course at UC-Berkeley. “It’s not constant pleasure. It’s a broader thing: your ability to connect with others, to have meaningful relationships, to have a community. Time and again — across decades of research and across all studies — people who say they’re happy have strong connections with community and with other people. That’s sort of the recipe for happiness.”

Drew Carlton, an RN-BC ACHE and administrator with Texas Health Behavioral Health, said that this focus on mindfulness is actually centuries old.

“There have been documented practices of different forms of mindfulness throughout the written history of man,” Carlton said. “Advances in health care technology have been able to back up the perceived benefits of the practice of mindfulness through such devices as MRI brain scans.”

“Mindfulness has been shown to release endorphins and lower heart rate and blood pressure in conjunction to providing a more relaxed state of being,” he added.

But how do you separate positive psychology and being a Pollyanna?

“Sugar coating a problem can lead to bad decisions in the future,” Achor said in July. He called the realistic part of positive psychology “rational optimism” and likened it to a fire that needed tending.

“Pessimists think, ‘Why keep the fire going, it won’t matter,’” he said. “Irrational optimists will say, ‘The fire will always be there, and someone will always keep it going,’ but won’t do anything themselves to keep the fire going.”

“A rational optimist will see the fire and say, ‘I’ll keep that fire going because it does make a difference, and I’ll find other people to help me in this effort.’”

“Positive psychology focuses on personal growth through an individual’s conscious effort to find satisfaction through interpersonal relationships, satisfaction in one’s career and financial standing,” Carlton added. “In essence, it is the opposite of the saying ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.’”

“To me, the difference between being Pollyanna and positive psychology is that positive psychology allows an individual to still remain proactive in aspiring who they want to be or become,” he further explained. “Being Pollyanna strikes me as being more reactive rather than proactive when it comes to life circumstances or stresses.”

But what if you’re just having a bad day?

Institute for Applied Positive Research founder Michelle Gielan, who also presented at the I-PEN Festival, recommends “fact checking” the situation. “Sometimes we are so focused on [the] core part of our environment that we ignore the other things that are going on,” she said, adding that this can cause a spiral into negativity.

Fact checking, she said involves the following:

  1. Isolating the stressful thought and pinpointing the exact cause of your worry
  2. Listing only the facts of the story — and only the facts
  3. Listing new facts that could change the trajectory of the day

In other words, if that deadline is staring you down and you begin to think you’ll never make it, take stock of what is true about the situation, and then look for other things that are equally true — perhaps you have done similar work in the past you can use, or a coworker has offered to help you.

“Science has shown that a healthy diet and exercise has been shown to aid in your ability to successfully practice mindfulness,” Carlton said, adding that practice makes perfect. “Mindfulness is also a learned behavior and will improve the more one attempts to practice it.”

In addition to feeling happier, scientists are finding that an increased focus on positive psychology can do good things for your body, too. Carnegie Mellon researchers found that people who overall have a positive mental attitude also have better immunity to cold and influenza viruses. And a University of Kentucky study of nuns as they aged found that the women who expressed more positivity in brief biographies written when they were 22 lived longer.

But sometimes, despite your best efforts to fact check and remain positive, a situation will just be a bad situation. How do you wrap your head around it and stay positive at the same time?

“Yes, stress happens on a daily basis and it would be unrealistic to think that one can remain entirely ‘Zen’ throughout the course of stressful stimuli,” Carlton acknowledged. “The key is to know yourself and recognize what works best for you.”

“Some people can achieve mindfulness simply through guided imagery and deep breathing,” he continued. “I am not one of them. This is when exercise can be most beneficial in achieving mindfulness. It requires an individual to refocus on something rather than the perceived stress.”

Other ways to maintain positivity throughout a stressful day? Psychology Today lists other ways to maintain positivity, including smiling (studies show that merely the act of smiling can improve mood), pausing to reflect on what you’re grateful for, affirmations, seeking out positive people, and intentionally being kind.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, however, have found that varying up your acts of kindness, or the ways you stay positive has better long-term effects than doing the same kinds of positive exercises every day.

Everyone loves a little company every now and then, so is surrounding yourself with friends also a key aspect of being happy? Take a look at what we found here.

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