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The New Science of Happiness

The New Science of Happiness

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Published by Justin Souter
What makes the human heart sing? Researchers are taking a close look. What they've found may surprise you. [article from Time Magazine, available for download from Uni of Penn.]
What makes the human heart sing? Researchers are taking a close look. What they've found may surprise you. [article from Time Magazine, available for download from Uni of Penn.]

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Published by: Justin Souter on Apr 03, 2012
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The New Science of
ugarywhite sand gleams under the bright yucatán sun, aquamarine
 water teems withtropical fish and lazy sea turtles, cold Mexican beer beckons beneath the shady thatch of pala-pas—it’s hard to imagine a sweeter spot than Akumal, Mexico, to contemplate the joys of be-ing alive. And that was precisely the agenda when three leading psychologists gathered in thisMexican paradise to plot a new direction for psychology.For most of its history, psychology had concerned itself with all that ails the human mind: anxiety,depression, neurosis, obsessions, paranoia, delusions. The goal of practitioners was to bring patientsfrom a negative, ailing state to a neutral normal, or, as University of Pennsylvania psychologist MartinSeligman puts it, “from a minus five to a zero.” It was Seligman who had summoned the others to Akumalthat New Year’s Day in 1998—his first day as president of the American Psychological Association(A.P.A.)—to share a vision of a new goal for psychology. “I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, What are the en-abling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”Every incoming A.P.A. president is asked to choose a theme for his or her yearlong termin office. Seligman was thinking big. He wanted to persuadesubstantial numbers in theprofession to explore the region north of zero, to look at what actively made people
feel fulfilled, engaged and meaningfully happy. Mental health, he reasoned, should be more than the absenceof mental illness. It should be something akin to a vibrant and muscular fitness of the human mind and spirit.Over the decades, a few psychological researchers had ventured out of the dark realm of mental illness intothe sunny land of the mentally hale and hearty. Some of Seligman’s own research, for instance, had focused onoptimism, atrait shown to be associated with good physical health, less depression and mental illness, longer lifeand, yes, greater happiness. Perhaps the most eager explorer of this terrain was University of Illinois psycholo-gist Edward Diener, a.k.a. Dr. Happiness.For more than two decades, basically ever since he got tenure andcould risk entering an unfashionable field, Diener had been examining what does and does not make people feelsatisfied with life. Seligman’s goal was to shine a light on such work and encourage much, much more of it.To help him realize his vision, Seligman invited Ray Fowler, then the long-reigning and influential
of the A.P.A., to join him in Akumal. He also invited Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronouncedcheeks sent me high), best known for exploring a happy state of mind called flow, the feeling of complete engage-ment in a creative or playful activity familiar to athletes, musicians, video-game enthusiasts—almost anyone wholoses himselfin a favorite pursuit.By the end of their week at the beach, the three had plans for the first-ever con-ference on positive psychology, to be held in Akumal ayear later—it was to become an annual event—and a strate-gy for recruiting young talent to the nascent field. Within a few months, Seligman, who has a talent for popularizingand promoting his areas of interest, was approached by the Templeton Foundation in England, which proceededto create lucrative awards for research in positive psych. The result: an explosion of research on happiness, opti-mism, positive emotions and healthy character traits. Seldom has an academic field been brought so quickly anddeliberately to life.
So, what has science learned about what makes the human heart sing?More than one might imagine—along withsome surprising things about what doesn’t ring our inner chimes. Take wealth, for instance, and all the delightfulthings that money can buy. Research by Diener, among others, has shown that once your basic needs are met, ad-ditional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life
(see story on page A32).
 A good education?Sorry, Mom and Dad, neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness. Youth? No,again. In fact, older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives than the young. And they’re less proneto dark moods: a recentsurvey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people ages 20 to 24are sad for an average of 3.4 days a month, as opposed to just 2.3 days for people ages 65 to 74.Marriage? A com-plicated picture: married people are generally happier than singles, but that may be because they were happier tobegin with
(see page A37).
Sunny days? Nope, although a 1998 studyshowed that Midwesterners think folks liv-ing in balmy California are happier and that Californians incorrectly believe this about themselves too.On the positive side, religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit, though it’s tough to tell whether it’sthe God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting. Friends?A giant yes. A2002 study conduct-
What makes the human heart sing? Researchers aretaking a close look. What they’ve found may surprise you
Reprinted through the courtesy of the Editors of T
Magazine © 2004 Time Inc.
ed at the University of Illinois by Dienerand Seligmanfound that the most salientcharacteristics shared by the 10% of stu-dents with the highest levels of happinessand the fewest signs of depressionweretheir strong ties to friends and family andcommitment to spending time withthem. “Word needs to be spread,” con-cludes Diener. “It is important to work onsocial skills, close interpersonal ties andsocial support in order to be happy.”
Of course, happiness is not a static state.Even the happiest of people—the cheeriest10%—feel blue at times. And even the bluesthave their moments of joy. Thathas present-ed a challenge to social scientists trying tomeasure happiness. That, along with thesimple fact that happiness is inherently sub- jective. To get around those challenges, re-searchers have devised several methods of assessment. Dienerhas created one of themost basicand widely usedtools, the Satis-faction with Life Scale.Though some schol-
TIME, JANUARY 17, 2005
ars have questioned the validity of this sim-ple, five-question survey, Diener has foundthat it squares well with other measures of happiness, such as impressions from friendsand family, expressionof positive emotionand low incidence of depression.Researchers have devised other tools tolook at more transient moods.Csikszentmi-halyi pioneered a method of using beepersand, later, handheld computers to contactsubjects at random intervals. A pop-upscreen presents an array of questions: What are you doing? How much are youenjoying it? Are you alone or interacting with someone else? The method, called ex-perience sampling, is costly, intrusive andtime consuming, but it provides an excel-lent picture of satisfaction and engagementat a specific time during a specific activity. Just last month, a team led by Nobel-prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahne-manof Princeton University unveiledanew tool for sizing up happiness:the day-reconstruction method. Participants fill outa long diary and questionnaire detailingeverything they did on the previous dayand whom they were with at the time andrating a range of feelings during each epi-sode(happy, impatient, depressed, worried,tired, etc.) on a seven-point scale. The meth-od was tested on a group of 900women inTexas with some surprising results. Itturned out that thefive most positive activ-ities for these women were (in descendingorder) sex, socializing, relaxing, prayingor meditating, and eating. Exercising and watching TVwere not far behind. But waydown the list was “taking care of my chil-dren,” which ranked below cooking andonly slightly above housework.That may seem surprising, given thatpeople frequently cite their children as theirbiggest source of delight—whichwas a find-ing of a T
poll on happiness conductedlast month. When asked, “What one thing inlife has brought you the greatest happiness?”,35% said it was their children or grandchil-dren or both. (Spouse was far behind at just9%, and religion a runner-up at 17%.) Thediscrepancy with the study of Texas women
JustHow HappyAre We? ...
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Based on their own assessment, Americans are overwhelmingly happy and optimistic people, regardless of income
Over $100,000 a year$50,000 to $99,999$35,000 to $49,999Under $35,000 a year68%24%14%13%11%7%5%2%1%81%37%13%33%15%2%85%88%78%16%5%
U.S. total
... not very often?... some of the time... most or all of the timeWould you say you are happy ... Would you say that so far you have lived the best possible life that you could have,a very good life, a good life, a fair life or a poor life?
Best possible Very goodGoodFairPoor
Do you generally wake up happy?
Depends/ don’t know: 6%
Depends/ don’t know: 6%
This TIME poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 13-14, 2004, among 1,009 adult Americans by SRBI Public Affairs. Margin of error is
3 percentage points. “Not sure” omitted for some questionsAll of the timeMost of the time
... AndWhat Makes UsThat Way?
Most people find happiness in family connections and friendships
 Talk to friends/familyPray/meditateHave sex  Take a drive in a carEatGo out with friendsExercise/work outPlay with a pet Take a bath or showerHelp others in needListen to music
Do you often do any of the following to improve your mood?
 Your relationship with your children Your friends and friendshipsContributing to the lives of others Your relationship with spouse/partner or your love life Your degree of control over your life and destiny The things you do in your leisure time Your relationship with your parents Your religious or spiritual life and worshipHoliday periods, such as Christmas and New Year
What are your major sources of happiness?
What one thing in your life has brought you the greatest happiness?
 Top four answers Top eight answers
TIME, JANUARY 17, 2005
piece”), engagement (the depth of involve-ment with one’s family, work, romance andhobbies) and meaning (using personalstrengths to serve some larger end). Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life,pleasure is the least consequential, he in-sists: “This is newsworthy because so many Americans build their lives around pursu-ing pleasure. It turns out that engagementand meaning are much more important.”
One of the biggest issues in happiness re-search is the question of how much ourhappiness is under our control. In 1996University of Minnesota researcher DavidLykken published a paper looking at theroleof genes in determining one’s senseofsatisfaction in life. Lykken, now 76, gath-ered informationon 4,000 sets of twins bornin Minnesota from 1936 through 1955. Aftercomparing happiness data on identical vs.fraternal twins, he came to the conclusionthat about 50% of one’s satisfaction with lifecomes from genetic programming. (Genesinfluence such traits as having a sunny, easy-going personality; dealing well with stress;and feeling low levels of anxiety and depres-sion.) Lykken found that circumstantial fac-tors like income, marital status, religion andeducation contribute only about 8%to one’soverall well-being. He attributes the remain-ing percentage to “life’s slings and arrows.”Because of the large influence of ourgenes, Lykken proposed the idea that each of us has a happiness set point much like our setpoint for body weight. No matter what hap-pens in our life—good, bad, spectacular,horrific—we tend to return in short order toour set range. Some post-tsunami images last week of smiling Asian children returning toschool underscored this amazing capacity toright ourselves. And a substantial body of re-search documents our tendency to return tothe norm. A study of lottery winners done in1978found, for instance, that they did not wind up significantly happier than a controlgroup. Even people who lose the use of theirlimbs to a devastating accident tend tobounce back, though perhaps not all the wayto their base line. One study found thataweek after the accident, the injured wereseverely angry and anxious, but after eight weeks “happiness was their strongest emo-tion,” says Diener. Psychologists call thisadjustment to new circumstances adap-tation. “Everyone is surprised by how happyparaplegics can be,” says Kahneman. “Thereason is that they are not paraplegic fulltime. They do other things. They enjoy theirmeals, their friends. They read the news. Ithas to do with the allocation of attention.In his extensive work on adaptation,Edward Diener has found two life eventsthat seem to knock people lastingly belowtheir happiness set point: loss of a spouseand loss of a job. It takes five to eight yearsfor a widow to regain herprevious sense of  well-being. Similarly, the effects of a jobloss linger long after the individual hasreturned to the work force. When he proposed his set-point theoryeight years ago, Lykkencame to a drasticconclusion. “It may be that trying to be hap-pier is as futile as trying to be taller,” he wrote. He has since come to regret that sen-tence. “I made a dumb statement in theoriginal article,” he tells
. “It’s clearthat we can change our happiness levels widely—up or down.’’Lykken’s revisionist thinking coincides with the view ofthe positive-psychologymovement, which has put a premium onresearch showing you can raise your levelof happiness. For Seligman and like-minded researchers, that involves workingon the three components of happiness—getting more pleasure out of life (whichcan be done by savoring sensory experi-ences, although, he warns, “you’re nevergoing to make a curmudgeon into a gigglyperson”),becoming more engaged in whatyou do and finding ways of making yourlife feel more meaningful.There are numerous ways to do that,they argue. At the University of Californiaat Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomir-sky is using grant money from the NationalInstitutes of Health to study different kindsof happiness boosters. One is the gratitude journal—a diary in which subjects writedown things for which they are thankful.Shehas found that taking the time to con-scientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects’ over-all satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that didnot keep journals had no such gain.Gratitude exercises can do more thanlift one’s mood. At the University of Cali-fornia at Davis, psychologist Robert Em-mons found they improve physical health,raise energy levels and, for patients withneuromuscular disease, relieve pain andfatigue. “The ones who benefited mosttended to elaborate more and have a widerspan of things they’re grateful for,” he notes. Another happiness booster, say positivepsychologists, is performing acts of altruismor kindness—visiting a nursing home, help-ing a friend’s child with homework, mowinga neighbor’s lawn, writing a letter to agrandparent. Doing five kind acts a week,especially all in a single day, gave a measur-able boost to Lyubomirsky’s subjects.Seligman has tested similar interven-tions in controlled trials at Penn and in hugeexperiments conducted over the Internet.The single most effective way to turbochargeyour joy, he says, is to make a “gratitude vis-it.” That means writing a testimonial thank-ing a teacher, pastor or grandparent—anyoneto whom you owe a debt of gratitude—andthen visiting that person to read him or herthe letter of appreciation. “The remarkablething,” says Seligman, “is that people whodo this just once are measurably happier andless depressed a month later. Butit’sgone by three months.” Less powerfulbut more lasting, he says, is an exercise hecalls three blessings—taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. “People are less depressed and happierthree months later and six months later.”points up one of the key debates in happi-ness research:Which kind of information ismore meaningful—global reports of well-be-ing (“My life is happy, and my children aremy greatest joy”) or more specific data on en- joyment of day-to-day experiences (“What anight! The kids were such a pain!”)? The twoare very different, and studies show they donot correlate well. Our overall happiness isnot merely the sum of our happy momentsminus the sum of our angry or sad ones.This is true whether you are looking athow satisfied you are with your life in gen-eral or with something more specific, suchas your kids, your car, your job or your vaca-tion. Kahneman likes to distinguish betweenthe experiencing self and the rememberingself. His studies show that what you re-member of an experience is particularly in-fluenced by the emotional high and lowpoints and by how it ends. So, if you wereto randomly beep someone on vacation inItaly, you might catch that person waitingfuriously for a slow-moving waiter to takean order or grousing about the high cost of the pottery. But if you ask when it’s over,“How was the vacation in Italy?”, the aver-age person remembers the peak momentsand how he or she felt at the end of the trip.The power of endings has been demon-strated in some remarkable experimentsby Kahneman. One such study involvedpeople undergoing a colonoscopy, an un-comfortable procedure in which a flexiblescope is moved through the colon. While acontrol group had the standard procedure,half the subjects endured an extra 60 sec-onds during which the scope was held sta-tionary; movement of the scopeis typicallythe source of the discomfort. It turned outthat members of the group that had thesomewhat longer procedure with a benignending found it less unpleasant than thecontrol group, and they were more willingto have a repeat colonoscopy. Asking people how happy they are,Kahneman contends, “is very much likeasking them about the colonoscopy afterit’s over. There’s a lot that escapes them.”Kahneman therefore believes that socialscientists studying happiness should paycareful attention to people’sactual experi-ences rather than just survey their reflec-tions. That, he feels, is especially relevant if research is to inform quality-of-life policieslike how much money our society shoulddevote to parks and recreation or howmuch should be invested in improving workers’ commutes. “You cannot ignorehow people spend their time,” he says,“when thinking about well-being.Seligman, in contrast, puts the empha-sis on the remembering self. “I think we areour memories more than we are the sum to-tal of our experiences,” he says. For him,studying moment-to-moment experiencesputs too much emphasis on transient pleas-ures and displeasures. Happiness goesdeeper than that, he argues in his 2002book
 Authentic Happiness.
 As a result of hisresearch, he finds three components of happiness: pleasure (“the smiley-face

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