The Science of Being Happy
According to a U.S. study, people are more likely to be happy if they are surrounded by others who are hopeful, optimistic and content with themselves.
Finding happiness may be as simple as switching off the TV, surrounding yourself with a circle of cheerful friends and lowering your expectations, according to a series of recent studies.
Maintaining a sense of good cheer these days can be tough with the slumping economy and gloomy forecasts, but researchers note that making small changes can shift our attitudes significantly and help us find hope and happiness. Here is a roundup of recent studies on happiness and hope.
We Are Connected, and So is Our Joy
Happiness spreads from person to person, according to a December 2008 study of social networks. Using data collected from the Framingham heart study, U.S. researchers found that people are more likely to be happy if they are surrounded by other people who reported being hopeful, optimistic and content with themselves.
"The pursuit of happiness is not a solitary goal," said James Fowler, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. "We are connected, and so is our joy."
The study, published in December 2008 in the British Medical Journal, suggests that living near a friend who becomes happy increases the probability of a person becoming cheerful by 25 per cent. Researchers also theorize that friends of friends — up to three degrees of separation — can also affect a person's degree of happiness.
"It is not just happy people connecting with happy people, which they do," said researcher Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Above and beyond, there is this contagious process going on."
Genetics a Determinant of Optimism, Pessimism: Study
Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist may be a matter of genetics, according to researchers at the University of Essex. In a study published in February 2009, researchers showed participants pairs of pictures. A neutral picture was coupled with a negative image, such as a spider, or a positive picture, such as a small mound of chocolates.
According to lead researcher Elaine Fox, people with a longer transporter gene for serotonin — a neurotransmitter linked with sleep and depression — tended to look at the positive pictures for an extended period of time. People with shorter transporter genes focused on the negative pictures for a long time.
"General life stress may induce resilience in some groups … while revealing increased susceptibility to mood disorders in others," the study said.
"Looking on the Bright Side: Biased Attention and the Human Serotonin Transporter Gene" was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
How to Be Happy at Work
Employers take note — showing your workers how they make a difference in their jobs can scale back rates of absenteeism by as much as 65 per cent, according to University of Alberta researchers.
A focus on career goals and contributing at work can help boost employees' spirits, suggest researchers at the University of Alberta. (iStock)The 2008 study, published in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing, focused on two groups of health-care workers. One group was offered a Spirit at Work workshop and weekly booster sessions to help them focus on morale and career goals. The other group was not offered any support programs.
Researchers found teamwork, job satisfaction and workplace morale all increased significantly among those who attended the workshop. Employer costs for absenteeism also decreased by $12,000 in year-over-year comparisons.
"They really had a sense of what they were there to do, to be of service to their clients," said researcher Val Kinjerski. "This notion of being of service is important in all work, but in the field of long-term health care, it is of utmost importance."
Share the Wealth
Consumers are happier when they spend on others over themselves, according to a March 2008 study published in Science.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School conducted a series of three experiments to measure levels of happiness and spending. The researchers found that those who spent solely on themselves were less likely to report being happy compared to those who spent on other people.
Altering small spending habits can lead to large attitudinal changes, said University of B.C. researcher Lara Aknin.
"People can find more happiness by altering their spending patterns — redirecting more to others in the form of charity and gift giving," she said.
Want What You Have
Retail therapy may not help consumers find meaningful happiness, researchers suggest. (iStock)Happiness comes to those who appreciate the things they already have, U.S. researchers suggested in an April 2008 study.
"Some years ago, a popular bumper sticker in the United States declared, 'He who dies with the most toys wins.' Whatever rewards await those who die with the most toys, our results indicate that the American undergraduates who are happiest in this life are not necessarily those who amass great numbers of things," said lead researcher Jeff Larsen of Texas Tech University in the study published in the April issue of Psychological Science.
"Rather, they are those who both have the things they want and want the things they have."
Researchers asked participants to rate on a nine-point scale their desire for material goods such as furniture and shoes. People were also asked to measure their life satisfaction and complete a questionnaire evaluating their sense of gratitude.
"The number of things people had did not predict happiness after we controlled for the extent to which they wanted what they had, had what they wanted, or both," Larsen said in the study. "In contrast, people who wanted what they had more than others … tended to be happier even after we controlled for the number of things they had and the extent to which they had what they wanted."
Happiness Is … Paying Your Taxes?
Not everyone disdains tax season, according to researchers at the University of Oregon who suggested in a 2007 study that the practice of paying taxes may actually produce feelings of satisfaction and happiness.
Using magnetic resonance imaging technology, researchers observed the brain activity of 19 participants who were given $100. Two reward-related areas of the brain — the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens — lit up when withdrawals were made. Participants were told the money was sent to a food bank's account.
"The fact that mandatory transfers to a charity elicit activity in reward-related areas suggests that even mandatory taxation can produce satisfaction for taxpayers," the study said. Researchers also noted when participants were given the option to give to charity voluntarily, the activation centre was even larger. "These transfers are associated with neural activation similar to that which comes from receiving money for oneself," said researcher Ulrich Mayr in the study published in Science.
Turn Off the TV, Pick Up a Book
How people spend their spare time can be a revealing reflection of mood, according to a November 2008 study by sociologists at the University of Maryland.
Researcher John P. Robinson analyzed data collected from 1975 to 2006, involving 30,000 participants. The study found that unhappy people watched 20 per cent more television than people who described themselves as happy. The latter group also reported being more socially active, reading more newspapers and attending more church services.
"People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged," said researcher Steven Martin. "For this kind of person, TV can become a kind of opiate in a way. It's habitual, and tuning in can be an easy way of tuning out."
The study was published in Social Indicators Research.
Lower Your Expectations
'Year after year [the Danes] are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.'
— Kaare Christensen, researcher
Why are the Danes so happy? Researchers in 2006 set out to answer this question, studying why Denmark for more than 30 years has ranked No. 1 in Eurobarometer surveys measuring life satisfaction.
In a study cheekily titled "Why Danes Are Smug: Comparative Study of Life Satisfaction in the European Union," Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark suggests levels of happiness in the country are so high because expectations are low.
"Year after year [the Danes] are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark," Christensen said of the study, noting journalists in the country seemed to expect the high happiness rankings to be fleeting.
"The headlines in Denmark ran: 'We're the happiest "lige nu." ' The phrase lige nu, which can be translated literally as "just now," is a quintessentially Danish expression redolent, indeed reeking, of the sentiment "for the time being, but probably not for long and don't have any expectations it will last."
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