The Science of Happiness: Prioritising Positivity

September 19, 2017

The Science of Happiness Course began earlier this month and it has so far been B R I L L I A N T. 

It’s a FREE 8-week Online Course with the University of California, Berkeley. It’s not too late to join, if you feel called, you can sign up here. Alternately, I’ll be sharing my biggest happiness take-away’s each week on the blog and via email – you can sign up here to receive updates direct to your inbox if you’re not already a part of this community.

Happiness can feel at times like a bit of a touchy-feely topic or like a luxury in life to aspire to. However, the science shared in this course and in the article below shows this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Prioritising positive emotions, it seems, can have the affect of improving almost every area of our lives in significant ways. Let me share more with you below.

The Science of Happiness

What’s happiness to you?

For me, happiness feels like a fairly natural, default state of being. One that’s accessible when I’ve cultivated a calm and clear internal space and when I’m living in a way that feels authentic, healthful and satisfying.

How would you describe happiness for you?

How do Scientists Define and Measure Happiness?

In the Course, we find that Ed Diener, one of the leading scientists in the study of happiness, thinks of happiness in the following way:

Happiness (aka “Subjective Well-being”) = Overall Well-being / Life Satisfaction + Positive (Vs Negative) Emotions

How Scientists Define and Measure Happiness

In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

How can we measure happiness?

We can do so by self-reporting using the following scales (developed by Ed Diener at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign):

1. The ‘Satisfaction with Life Scale’ measures how much people agree with statements like:
– In most ways my life is close to my ideal
– The conditions of my life are excellent
– I am satisfied with my life
– So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life
– If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing

2. The ‘Scale of Positive and Negative Experience’ (SPANE) measures self-reported levels of positive and negative feelings – see the attached Scale of Positive and Negative Experience to gauge where you’re at!

(Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi. D., Oishi, S., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2009). New measures of well-being: Flourishing and positive and negative feelings. Social Indicators Research, 39, 247-266.)

What’s more important in happiness – meaning or pleasure?

In their essay – Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? – Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh reported that some researchers have looked at what they call “eudaimonic happiness,” or the happiness that comes from meaningful pursuits, and “hedonic happiness”—the happiness that comes from pleasure or goal fulfilment, in an effort to establish whether it is helpful to separate out meaning from pleasure.

What’s more important in happiness – meaning or pleasure?
A recent study by Steven Cole of the UCLA School of Medicine, and Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that people who reported more eudaimonic happiness (meaning) had stronger immune system function than those who reported more hedonic happiness (pleasure). This suggests that a life of meaning may be better for our health than a life seeking pleasure.

What difference does Happiness make?

In an influential 2005 article by Sonja Lyubormirksy, Laura King, and Ed Diener – The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? – the authors summarise that as we cultivate happiness, the benefits to us individually and collectively, are multifaceted. We’re more likely to live longer lives, to have healthier bodies, to be more innovative and creative, have stronger relationships, and even to have healthier cultures and communities.

How does happiness improve our physical health?

In her article for the Greater Good Science Center – Six Ways Happiness is Good for your Health – Kira Newman lists the benefits of happiness to our physical wellbeing:

1. Happiness protects your heart
2. Happiness strengthens your immune system
3. Happiness combats stress
4. Happy people have fewer aches and pains
5. Happiness combats disease and disability
6. Happiness lengthens our lives

How does happiness improve our physical health?

So, what makes one person happier than another?

Research shows that happy people:
– Are comfortable expressing gratitude
– Are often the first to help others
– Practice optimism about the future
– Savour pleasures and live in the present moment
– Make physical activity a habit
– Are often spiritual or religious
– Are deeply committed to lifelong goals

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ken Sheldon and Dave Vishcody developed a theory that answers this. The theory is simple and the numbers approximations and averages from various studies but they give us something to work with to begin to understand the variances in happiness in individuals.

Their theory is that in each individual, happiness comes from:
Genes – 50%
Life circumstances – ~10%
Intentional activity – ~40%

As you can see, the implications are incredibly powerful. We have a whole lot of control in our everyday lives over around 40% of our happiness via intentional activity. We can pay attention to the activities in life, big or small, that make us feel positive emotions and then choose to do some of these activities each day.

So, what makes one person happier than another?
Further supporting this, in his essay – Happiness, The Hard Way – historian, Darrin M McMahon suggests that happiness has far more to do with how we order ourselves and our lives as a whole than anything that might happen individually to any one of us.

Why study Happiness?

With so much going on in the world, you might wonder what’s so important about studying happiness…

Within the Course, Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder and Director of the Greater Good Science Center, explores 3 very important reasons why the study of happiness is important to our society. His reasons are shared below:

1. Increases in loneliness
– Americans have 1/3 fewer close friends than a generation ago
– 25 percent say they have no close friends at all which is twice as many as two decades ago
– More people live alone or with just one other person

Loneliness is linked to:
– Less resilience to stress
– Lower happiness
– Lack of sleep
– Worse health (e.g. higher blood pressure and weaker immune system)

Why study Happiness?
2. Increase in Narcissism
– From early 1980s to mid-2000s: 30% more college students show an above average level of narcissism (Twenge, et. Al, 2008)
– Rise in related traits like materialism and self-esteem
– Lower levels of empathy and concern for others among college students in 2009 vs. 1979 (Konrath, 2011)

High narcissism / low empathy can hinder social connection, kindness and compassion.

3. Rise in inequality
– From 1979-2007 (in United States), income of top 1% grew by 278% (vs. 35% growth for middle 20%)
– American CEOs now earn 110 times more than workers (vs. 30 times in 1979)
– According to a 2012 Pew survey, inequality is the greatest source of social conflict in the United States

Practicing Happiness

It’s easy to get caught up in what goes wrong in our lives while adapting seemingly effortlessly to the good things, essentially taking them for granted.

This 10-minute Happiness Practice – Three Good Things: The Why and The How – guards against those tendencies.

By remembering and listing three positive things that happened in your day—and considering what caused them—you can better tune into the sources of goodness in your life. It’s a habit that can change the emotional tone of your life, replacing feelings of disappointment or entitlement with those of gratitude—which may be why this practice is associated with significant increases in happiness (being shown to increase happiness immediately afterward, as well as one week, one month, three months, and six months later).

Two Core Truths about Positive Emotions

They Open Our Minds

In a video series within the Course – Positive Emotions Open Our Minds & Positive Emotions Transform Us – Dr. Fredrickson shares that there are two core truths about positive emotions.

The first, she says, is that they open our minds. They literally change the boundaries of our minds and our hearts and change our outlook on our environments.

Experiencing positive emotions has been shown to broaden our world view, to open up our minds and perspectives to not only increase the expanse of our peripheral vision at a micro level but also to be able to see larger systems and see more interconnectedness, which can make a big difference when trying to address some of the complex societal problems that we’re facing.

Dr Fredrickson shares that research shows positive emotions:
– change how open our visual perspective is at a really basic level, widening the scope of what we’re scanning for in the environment
– widen our awareness, which is directly linked to greater creativity, at work and otherwise
– make people more resilient and able to bounce back quicker from adversity
– help kids with better academic performance (e.g. they’ve been shown to do better on a math test or in a learning context if they’re just asked to sit and think of a positive memory before they take the test)
– help physicians making better medical decisions and making them better at integrating the complex information of an unsolved case
– change our ability to see our common humanity with others
– allow us to look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual and recognize individuals across racial lines to see past difference and to see towards oneness
– make people more trusting
– help people come to better win-win situations in negotiations all kinds of effects

Two Core Truths about Positive Emotions

They Transform Us

The second core truth Dr Fredrickson shares about positive emotions is that they transform us for the better.

Scientists estimate that on average, people replace one percent of their cells each day, so you could say in 30 days, we’ll have turned over 30% of our cells.

The latest science also suggests that our emotions affect the pace and form of this cellular change. In broadening and opening our awareness over time, positive emotions change our ways of being in the world and change who we are in the future.

Changing people’s traits or characterological positive emotions can be done she says, but it’s akin to making a lifestyle change. It’s something that you do with continual reinforcement and effort.

If we increase our daily diet of positive emotions we come out three months later being better, stronger, more resilient, more socially connected versions of ourselves.

It’s been found that the degree to which people experience positive emotions in their lives predicts whether they will flourish or languish in life. By following the light of our positive emotions in the micro moments of our lives, our path to flourish can be lit by positivity.

What’s the Best Way to Pursue Happiness?

A study by Lahnna Catalino, Sara Algoe and Barbara Fredrickson’s compares pursuing happiness to prioritisng positivity, and their results suggest that prioritising positivity is a more promising approach to boosting happiness.

In her essay – A Better Way to Pursue Happiness – Lahnna Catalino, postdoc scholar in psychiatry at UC San Francisco, School of Medicine, warns that the mere act of focusing on one’s emotional experience from one moment to the next, may get in the way of positive emotions.

What’s the Best Way to Pursue Happiness?
Rather, prioritising positivity through “situation selection” involves monitoring one’s daily itinerary and choosing to include activities that you know induce positive emotions – spending quality time with loved ones, spending time in nature, exercising, meditation, being creative, acts of kindness, volunteerism.

Catalino says the science on the deliberate pursuit of happiness is young, so any prescriptions for happiness must be offered with the caveat that the research is still evolving and conclusions might be subject to change. So far, however, based on her research, she can speculate how people might more effectively pursue happiness:

1. First, let go of extreme ways of relating to your happiness.
2. Second, reflect on the activities that give you joy or contentment.
3. Finally, once you think of a couple of activities, schedule them into your upcoming week.

I would so love to hear how all this sits for you and how you prioritise positivity in your own life.

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