Understanding the Science of Happiness

In the past few days, almost everyone who I’ve met wished me a ‘Happy New Year’.  These wishes reinforce the truism that people generally seek happiness for themselves and for others. Bookstores, bloggers, and podcasts offer countless self-help ideas to improve happiness. We’re urged to drink more water, get enough sleep, practise mindfulness, exercise regularly, meditate, have more sex, and count our blessings.

How much of the advice is science-based?  Is there scientific research on happiness? What should one do to have that happy new year?

The How of Happiness

By chance, I discovered the work of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research psychologist at the University of California Riverside, after hearing her interviewed during a CBC radio discussion about happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky discussed her research that showed only 40% of happiness was within our control.  What a surprise! She stated that the other components of happiness included a genetic set-point that accounted for 50% of happiness and life circumstances that accounted for the remaining 10%.

The discussion intrigued me as, for the past 10 years, aspects of happiness in retirement have been themes in Postworksavvy blog posts. I read Dr. Lyubomirksky’s book, The How of Happiness, that describes her research.  She is clear that the 50% genetic set-point is hereditary and cannot be changed.  The 10% that relates to life circumstances and environment can be modified with acquisitions of ‘stuff’ and with changes to living arrangements; however, the effects are short-lived. The 40% within our control depends on making intentional choices and practicing specific activities to increase happiness.

For the 40% of what Dr. Lyubomirsky calls the ‘happiness pie’ over which we have control, she recommends 12 happiness-increasing activities:

  1.  Expressing Gratitude
  2. Cultivating Optimism
  3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
  4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
  5. Nurturing Social Relationships
  6. Developing Strategies for Coping
  7. Learning to Forgive
  8. Increasing FLOW experiences
  9. Savouring Life’s Joys
  10. Committing to your Goals
  11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
  12. Taking Care of your Body

The list is lengthy and daunting! Dr. Lyubomirksy concedes that each activity is useful to practise but she includes a quiz that helps with decisions about which of the activities will be most helpful given each person’s needs and preferences.

Yale University Approach to the Science of Happiness

Many readers will have heard of the ‘happiness’ course that Dr. Laurie Santos first offered in 2018 to Yale University students.  She designed the course in response to student reports of high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The course, “Psychology and the Good Life” was the most popular course ever taught at Yale. It garnered international media attention.

In her teaching, Dr. Santos debunked myths about what creates happiness such as having more money. She assigned exercises to help students develop habits to create life satisfaction.  These exercises, based on her review of academic research on happiness, include:

  1. Identifying and using strengths
  2. Focusing on having experiences rather than acquiring ‘stuff’
  3. Expressing gratitude
  4. Showing kindness
  5. Making time for social connections
  6. Fostering healthy habits such as exercise, journaling, and mindfulness

If you want to explore this structured learning opportunity to increase happiness and build productive habits, you can take an online version offered by Yale University and available free at Coursera.com https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, spent a year studying scientific and popular literature on the subject of happiness. She advocates choosing small actions and creating positive habits such as getting enough sleep, making your bed every day and being authentic. Her book resonated with many, rocketing to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and selling millions of copies.

As well as several other books about happiness and the good habits, you can find Rubin’s writing on her blog https://gretchenrubin.com or you can listen to her weekly podcast https://gretchenrubin.com › podcasts

Mary Pipher’s Advice

In the book, Women Rowing North, psychologist and writer, Mary Pipher, examines choices for older women to improve happiness while dealing with losses and challenges of growing older. Pipher draws on wisdom gained from her clinical practice, from observing friends and from her review of research findings.  She offers practical advice while acknowledging that ageing, loss, and life’s inevitable changes can trigger feelings of anger and despair. Using stories of friends’ experiences, she inspires readers to find joy despite the curve balls that life throws.

Intentional Choices and the Science of Happiness 

Scientific research shows that increasing happiness requires effort and commitment. Conscious choices are required to make our days meaningful. Common themes from the research include gratitude, forgiveness, social connections and sense of purpose. Embracing a ‘count-my-blessings’ attitude applies to everyone seeking to live a happier life, regardless of age.

Personally, I am inspired by research on the science of happiness.  I took the quiz offered by Dr. Lyubomirsky to find that FLOW activity and committing to goals ranked highest for me.  I have not worked through the exercises prescribed by Dr. Santos in the Yale course.  Gretchen Rubin’s book and her weekly podcasts always give timely advice. Pipher’s book helped me think positively about ageing and the inevitable losses that come with growing older.

I’m impressed that psychologists are focusing on the science of happiness.  I’m also impressed with the conventional wisdom offered at this time of year.  Achieving a state of well-being, joy, fulfillment and happiness is truly a journey!

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4 Replies to “Understanding the Science of Happiness”

  1. Through your posts, I feel I have found a friend with an exceptionally sound and positive perspective on retirement and ageing. I would love to share select posts with my friends on Facebook and LinkedIn. Thanks!

    1. Hello Dee,
      I would be pleased to have you share my blog posts. Please acknowledge that the posts come from my blog and copy my on your shares.
      A couple of years ago, I was dismayed when I read one of my posts on an insurance company’s website with no attribution to me or my blog as the source!
      Thanks for your interest.

  2. Great read and recommended reading. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks. I enjoyed doing the research for this post. Too often, I have relied on popular self-help advice about happiness instead of looking at what really works.

I welcome feedback and will reply to your comments!

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