What Makes Us Happy?

The bilious oil hemorrhaging from the bowels of the Earth, coupled with the usual stressors of life, makes me feel sad and pessimistic of late. And while I’m still pretty sure that ignorance, intolerance, and our polluting routines will be our ruin, I also search for ways to retain optimism and hope. Amid the constant erosion there are basic roots that hold life together. If you share the belief that life is fundamentally absurd, then life is truly what you make it. Are there small steps proven to make us happier?

Psychology often concerns itself with helping ailing people get back to a neutral ground, but the field of positive psychology aims to do more. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s most renowned proponent, once said: “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 enabling conditions that make human beings flourish?”

To that end, research on happiness, optimism, positive emotions and healthy character traits has been increasing in psychology. Some surprising results challenge our assumptions, such as the fact that once basic needs are met, money does not increase happiness. Neither do high education or high IQ. Older people tend to be happier than young. The sunny weather in California and Florida does not make people happier than those living in colder and cloudier climes.

The trait most shared by happy people seems to be close connections with family and friends, bolstered by a commitment to spending time with them.

Other factors that are associated with happiness include contributing to the lives of others, a good relationship with a spouse, control over one’s life and decisions, time for leisure, spirituality or religion, and the holiday periods. The following graphic comes from a Time Magazine article on positive psychology:

The daily activities of life versus the overall experience also effects our opinions of what makes us happy. For example, parents typically consider their children the greatest source of happiness in their lives, but when asked about the day-to-day activities of caring for children, most considered it less than inspiring. One study of 900 women in Texas found that “caring for children” ranked well below sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, exercising, and watching TV. In fact, taking care of children ranked below cooking and only slightly above housework. Yet when asked what one thing has brought people the most happiness, children and grandchildren are most frequently cited. There is a difference between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.”

In addition to the big things in life, are there small steps we can take on a daily basis to improve our sense of happiness? According to positive psychology the answer is yes. Research supports the following measures that increase engagement, pleasure, and meaning:

1) Count your blessings. “At the University of California at Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky is using grant money from the NIH to study different kinds of happiness boosters. One is the gratitude journal – a diary in which subjects write down things for which they are thankful. She has found that taking the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects’ overall satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that did not keep journals had no such gain.”

Instead of only complaining at the dinner table of the things that went wrong at work, recounting three positives each day will produce more happiness in your life. Gratitude exercises also help physical health and may alleviate the distress of chronic pain and illness to some degree.

2) Practice altruism. Volunteering at a hospital, cooking a meal for a friend, letting a stressed mother cut in front of you in the grocery line, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, sending a care package to a grandparent – all these examples of kindness create connections between people, increase your sense of capability, generosity, and perhaps open the door to reciprocal acts that foster community and friendship. Altruism is a fine way of pleasing yourself and others at the same time.

3) Take time to delight in the world. Did you really taste that bowl of coffee ice cream? Did you pause to wonder at the crescent moon and the stars beyond? Did you revel in the moment you pulled up the cotton sheets and felt luxurious in your safe bed before sleep? Living in the moment – sensually, intellectually, creatively, wondrously –helps to ward off despair.

4) Thanking a mentor in your life is important, and actually benefits you, too. One study showed that writing a letter to someone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude produced positive effects on the writer that were significant for over a month. Of course the recipient of such a letter is thrilled.

5) Forgive others. Writing a letter of forgiveness, whether delivered or not, helps purge negative emotions and desires for revenge. It the first and most important step in moving on.

6) Devote time and energy to relationships. Ties with family and friends are the most consistently cited predictors of happiness. Although the deserted island in the middle of the tropics sounds great, in reality we are fulfilled by the webs we weave and the connections we make throughout life.

7) Use your body. Stretch. Exercise. Laugh. Walk. These things reduce anxiety and improve mood.

8 ) Develop effective coping mechanisms. Hardship, adversity, and tragedy will always be a part of life. Cultivating faith, whether religious or secular, has been shown to help people cope. Even believing a simple dictum like “This too shall pass” relieves the stress of the moment.

A perpetual state of happiness is not possible. As I write this I finish a fairly crappy day, and I just learned that Medicare (thanks to Senate Republicans) is cutting its payments to physicians by 20%. This will be disastrous for doctors, medical practices, and ultimately patients. But I went for a run today. I ate tasty fish cooked with garlic and tomatoes. I saw a beautiful sky at dusk and basked in a breezy, humidity-free day. I am thankful that I am not in pain, and that I was able to help some people through my work.

Flourishing isn’t easy, and positive psychology sounds like fluff when you are in the dumps, but it’s worth a Sisyphean try to be happy.

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10 thoughts on “What Makes Us Happy?

  1. Chrysalis

    With all that is happening in healthcare, three of us decided to start a site that would help to focus on positive things. Please come over and join us @ http://www.positivemedicalblog.com. It’s meant to be a place where we can share and interact. We know the climate in healthcare is steadily getting worse and it makes it increasingly difficult to find joy in what you do, but we also know how important it is to try not to drown in it’s decline. Come visit a place where we try to focus on the positives. We’d love to have you.

  2. gloriamundi

    Can sanity be infectious? I do hope so – Dr Charles is doing his best to infect all of us – for which, thanks!
    I expect you know the book “Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard? A scientist turned Buddhist monk, and you don’t have to share his religion (is Buddhism a religion, in the usual sense of the word?) in order to value greatly much of what he says.

  3. robin andrea

    I’ve been thinking about you, wanting to share this disastrous bit of personal news. Roger was just diagnosed with colon cancer, and he’s a medicare recipient. We have no idea what this will mean for us, both in terms of his prognosis (still awaiting a second opinion on the biopsy for one lesion that’s questionable in terms of malignancy [the first mass is definitely malignant]), and how it will affect the willingness of doctors to continue treating medicare patients like Roger. We practice most of your eight-step list, but sometimes life just has a way of slamming you around a bit. Still, we go out to photograph the dragonflies; we cook delicious and nutritious food; we work in the garden and feed the birds. All the while our bodies do their slow declining dance.

  4. Jacqueline Johns - Your Happy Life Mentor

    Great post!

    I especially liked your candid closing regarding your crappy day. We all have them – it’s just a matter of how we react to the crap in our lives that makes the difference.

    I am going through what I hope will be the most challenging time of my life, yet I am so grateful for the warm bed I curl up into at night, the beautiful winter sunshine turning droplets of water on a branch into glistening diamonds, the creek (complete with ducks) I walk or run past every day, the love and support of my kidults. I could go on and on and on, but you already know where I’m coming from, because you live there too.

    I hope people like you and I can continue to show others the way to happiness – it’s so easy.

    Live Life Happy!

  5. MG

    @Greg P: But we’ll somehow muddle through and it won’t seem as bad in the moment if we’re present and committed to doing our best. For example, the Great Depression was a terrible time, but life went on and there was no moratorium on joy (c.f. The Great Depression by Studs Terkel, since I’m way too young to remember those days).

    What’s more, the GD shaped people in ways that made many of them great gifts to the society. I feel very lucky to count some GD children among the most wonderful & influential people I have known — their willingness to share their experience & lessons has helped to shape me, too.

  6. Dream Mom

    I agree that there is a lot to be depressed about: the BP oil spill, genetically modified foods and lack of good healthcare for the poor and disabled as well as good payment for physicians. On the other hand, happiness is a choice. Learning to find the simple pleasures in life goes a long way. Ironically, I wrote a post about caregiving today and listed some of the same items that your research showed along with a few other things that I learned along the way. Good post.

  7. Kendra

    This might be your best post, yet! (But you just keep setting the bar higher and higher every day.)

    First of all, I concur with every word in your post.

    Secondly, I think positive psychology does have a lot to offer. At first blush, much of it seems like common sense. But the reality is that people (myself included) fail to exercise common sense on a daily basis.

    This list is a great set of “reminders” that we are, in fact, in control of our own happiness.

    I particularly like number three. (And loved your closing, where you practiced this.)

    You have inspired me to do the same:

    Today was particularly challenging and I faced many obstacles and a long list of items that needed to be “checked off.” However, I also went on a revitalizing run in a gorgeous park with my two loving doggies. I stopped to greet and thank a few strangers during my journeys. I’m about to enjoy a yummy thai-inspired salmon dish for dinner. And tomorrow is the first day of my psychiatry residency, which is nothing short of a miracle and a blessing!

  8. Janet

    Sometimes darkness comes
    at times not after sunset.
    It dwells in the mind.

    The night is longest
    in loneliness and the cold.
    Darkness chains the soul.

    But the stars still shine,
    and night is not forever;
    a sun will return.

    When fear casts shadows,
    rest your heart in the lark’s song,
    and remember dawn.

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