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Celebrated Living

The Pursuit Of Happiness

Research suggests that the power to find joy and contentment lies within all of us. (2012)


By Charlotte Huff

Happiness. We're all chasing it to some extent.

But the elusiveness of that warm glow, to capture or to quantify, hasn't discouraged researchers and book authors from trying to better identify not only the personality traits, but also the day-to-day influences that shape our emotional well-being. In short, can Eeyore learn to put a little more bounce into his step?

A flurry of recent studies indicates that yes, happiness may be more malleable than once thought. If some of the latest research findings are on track, though, some of us might be risking derailment, given today's workaholic, multitasking, technology-dependent tendencies.

Several themes emerge -- one of the most obvious being the weight of money matters and its influence on the state of happiness. Chasing money, of course, won't help much, especially if you simply use the cash to acquire more stuff. Once you earn enough to cover your routine needs, you're more likely to find contentment if you "start reallocating your resources -- that is, your time, your interests, and your focus -- on the things that more dependably bring you happiness," says Dan Buettner, author of Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, one of innumerable happiness-infused books published in recent years.

Take a friend out to dinner instead of embarking on a shopping spree. Donate your time or your money to a cause that's personally meaningful. In fact, many of the individual research findings, including in areas that might seem unrelated to happiness, build the case that emotional well-being rests upon richer personal connections, both at home and work and in terms of the broader social fabric.

"The most powerful determinant of happiness is the quality of your relationships with other people," says Christopher Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a renowned researcher in positive psychology. "My bumper sticker is that other people matter -- that's the formula for being happy."

Nature vs. Nurture

We're all born with a happiness baseline, so to speak. Research, some of it involving twins, indicates that at least 40 percent of happiness appears to be programmed into our genes and linked personality traits, dubbed our "set point" by psychologists. Our set point might be temporarily disrupted -- say, by winning the lottery or the death of a loved one. Over time, though, we'll likely revert back to our innate mood level.

But that theory is shifting, says Buettner, who aligns himself with researchers who believe that people can move along a personal spectrum, or "set range," of happiness, at least within reason. "The guy born with a bad set of genes is probably never going to be a nine [on a 10-point scale], at least not for any sustained amount of time," Buettner says.

As a whole, Americans are generally a happy group. About 85 percent of people report experiencing generally positive feelings -- smiling, enjoyment, and happiness -- every day, according to one of the most comprehensive windows into happiness, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The analysis, published in 2010, relied on data from more than 450,000 responses to a daily survey conducted by the Gallup organization.

Income level certainly matters, but only to a certain point, according to the analysis. Its impact on daily mood levels off at roughly $75,000 annually, perhaps because that income covers daily needs and allows some latitude for leisure, including spending time with loved ones, the researchers theorize.

Another large-scale recent study, which sifted through 25 years of survey data from Germany, also highlights personal connections. Those individuals who consistently selected family or altruistic goals over money or possessions experienced higher levels of life satisfaction. Other factors fostered happiness: church attendance, participation in social events, and regular exercise.

Gretchen Rubin, as she focused on boosting her daily mood first for The Happiness Project blog and later for the related book, says one of her key breakthroughs involved reframing the prism through which she made even seemingly small decisions. Everyone consistently makes choices involving time, energy, or money, she says. "I would look at my life and say, 'What is the impact [of this decision] on my relationships?' That's been a very good way to think about it."

Do Unto Others

At The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, researchers have been digging further into the emotional link between money and community. In one frequently cited series of experiments, published in 2008 in the journal Science, they showed that choosing to spend on others trumps dropping cash on oneself.

In one experiment, employees who devoted a higher percentage of their corporate bonus to charity reported greater happiness. In another, participants were given $5 or $20 at the beginning of the day and assigned to either spend it on a personal gift or bill or on someone else. Those who gave the money away reported greater happiness at day's end.

Our brains may actually be wired to reward altruism, according to another study that analyzed the brain images of 19 women. Their brains' reward centers were similarly activated when the women gave money to a local charity, as when they received it themselves, says William Harbaugh, a study researcher and professor of economics at the University of Oregon. "You have to call this a good feeling that comes from charitable giving," says Harbaugh, now involved in a larger study to see if the findings hold up.

Even so, "people do seem to mispredict the emotional benefits of spending on others," says Lara Aknin, a Ph.D. student at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and researcher who co-authored the Science paper. When 109 students were told about the study involving the $5 or $20 bills, they were surveyed to determine which spending approach they thought would achieve greater happiness. Nearly two-thirds, 69 students, chose spending on themselves.

Community Content

Buettner, in his book Thrive, studied lessons learned from communities around the world that have achieved high levels of happiness. Place matters, he says. "When you look at all of the ingredients, the most important ingredient to that recipe of happiness is where you live." California's San Luis Obispo, the city ranked highest in the United States on the Gallup-Healthways index, benefits from local leadership that focuses on policies that favor quality of life -- such as creating a greenbelt around the city, favoring cyclists over motorists, limiting marketing, and prohibiting drive-through windows at fast food restaurants, as well as a town square that facilitates meeting other people, he says.

If moving is not feasible, people can still reshape their home base, Buettner says. He recommends looking for a job that requires a short commute and picking a neighborhood with sidewalks and nearby parks, which encourage exercise and meeting neighbors.

Need more proof that socialization matters? Another analysis from the Gallup-Healthways index found that Americans are happiest on days when they spend six to seven hours socializing. Some of that socialization can occur at work, if people have forged good relationships with co-workers, Peterson says.

Performing meaningful work in life, whether paid or not, also appears to boost emotional well-being. "Is there something that gets you out of bed in the morning?" Peterson asks. He points out that the Japanese have a word that encapsulates this concept, ikigai, which translates roughly as having a sense of "life worth living."

Positively Pessimistic

All of this psychological focus on happiness and optimism makes Julie K. Norem a little gloomy. Americans have turned optimism into a virtue, with the implication that happiness is under our control, says Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak. "It is a belief widely held in our culture and promoted by some self-help gurus that if we are not happy, it is our own fault."

Excessive optimism can be destructive in its own way, if someone focuses too much on what's going well and ignores a potential looming disaster, she says. Moreover, some people -- a group that Norem calls defensive pessimists -- perform better if they worry some, sussing out and working through potential problems in advance. "The same formula is not going to work for everybody."

Peterson couldn't agree more. "There's no guarantee -- try these things out." All of these studies are based on large populations, he says, and might not be applicable on an individual level. As one example, a $75,000 annual income might be more lifestyle (and mood) cramping in New York City than in Kansas City.

Instead, focus on the long-haul goal of living a more caring and connected life, Peterson says. And hopefully you'll enjoy the byproduct: greater happiness.