Have Researchers Discovered the Secret of Happiness?
Researchers have long considered happiness too complex an emotion to control. But one psychologist may have discovered the hidden origins of contentment—and a way to harness them for our own good.
Being happy isn’t always easy, humans are complicated creatures. While our brains might be capable of performing wildly complex tasks, they can also sabotage our well-being. But what if there were a (prescription-free) method of keeping ourselves content?
What if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, that kind of happiness could be within reach—for almost everyone. Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has devoted her career to the study of happiness: what it is, what it does and why it exists. And her findings are cause for optimism.
“Not everyone is going to be naturally happy all the time,” Lyubomirsky says. Her studies have investigated two components of happiness: cognitive, that is, a sense of satisfaction with life, and emotional, the raw experience of joy. For many of us, experiencing these two components simultaneously is rare, but according to Lyubomirsky, “there are certain strategies we can all use to maximize our happiness.”
To uncover these strategies, Lyubomirsky and her team designed a series of experiments called “happiness interventions.”
In one of these studies, one set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another set was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness – but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore or, worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.
Another study demonstrated the surprising impact a simple act of kindness can have on one’s overall well-being. In a series of workplace experiments in Madrid, Spain, Lyubomirsky and her student Joe Chancellor privately asked several workers (the givers) to perform an act of kindness (deliver a compliment or a cup of coffee) for five of their colleagues (the receivers) every week.
Somewhat obviously, the receivers, who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed with goodwill, underwent an immediate boost in happiness. More unexpected, however, was the effect on the givers: They, too, became notably happier—happier even, than the receivers. And their happiness was more enduring—four months later, the givers were still happier than they had been before the experiment, while the receivers’ happiness had petered out.
But the happiness created by the experiment wasn’t limited to the givers and receivers.
“Everyone started doing more positive things in the workplace,” says Lyubomirsky. “Even the observers began to act more generously toward others. Everybody paid it forward.”
Other workplace-based “happiness interventions” yielded equally encouraging results. At Hitachi’s office in Tokyo, Lyubomirsky and her colleague asked several employees to write down three things that had gone well each week; they also asked them to wear a small electronic badge to monitor their movements.
As expected, the employees displayed an increase in happiness – but that wasn't all. The electronic monitors showed that the employees became more mobile as their happiness increased. In essence, their happiness created a surge in energy, particularly in the morning. This energy tended to peak early, allowing employees to be more productive while working fewer hours.
And oddly, these happy, dynamic employees actually spoke less to their co-workers at the office.
“Happier people have been found to be more sociable,” Lyubomirsky says, “but our experiments suggest that’s not always true. Sometimes happiness allows us to focus more on work—and cut the chatter.”
In fact, much of Lyubomirsky’s work explodes common myths and misunderstandings about happiness.
Many recent studies suggest that having children makes couples less happy, due to the strain on leisure, finances, and marital contentment. But the truth is not so simple. Lyubomirsky has discovered that, on the whole, parents are happier than non-parents – though their happiness ebbs and flows, based on circumstances.
A parent in the presence of his child, for instance, is happier than a parent whose child is absent. Parents of younger children are less happy than their childfree peers. And married parents are relatively happier, as are older parents, who tend to have more resources.
But parents with lots of resources—extremely wealthy parents, in other words—appear to be significantly less happy than parents with moderate resources.
“Parents with the most resources also have the highest opportunity costs,” explains Lyubomirsky. “They feel their time is more valuable, and they fill a lot of different roles. So they’re not especially happy when they spend time with their kids – they question whether they should be doing something else.”
As Lyubomirsky’s research into parenting illustrates, there’s no singular recipe for joy. But many of us can boost our contentment levels through such small acts as paying a compliment to a co-worker, spending more time with our kids and taking a bit of time each week to reflect on what's going right in our lives
“No single strategy will work for everyone,” says Lyubomirsky. “But everyone can find a strategy that works for them.”