Happiness, It’s A Science

What does it mean to be happy? Are happy people better off in life? These types of questions led researchers to start exploring the impact of happiness through a more scientific lens. The subsequent research has changed the way we think about happiness and how it affects nearly all areas of our lives.


UC Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.” [1] While we each experience happiness and joy in different ways, the benefits of positive emotion and mental well-being are clear. The “Science of Happiness” helps us understand how anyone can improve how happy they feel. 


What exactly is the “Science of Happiness”? 


The science of happiness can most simply be defined as the study of what happiness is, what makes people happy, and how to experience true happiness. [2] This psychological field was first explored by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi in the late 1980s, though psychological research continued to focus mostly on what ailed the mind (things such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, sadness, anger, and fear) rather than what soothed it. It would be almost a decade until the study of positive emotion came into the spotlight thanks to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman’s mission to define the field of “positive psychology”, or “the scientific study of optimal human functioning”. [3] Along with a group of academic psychologists, Seligman dedicated their work and attention to understanding what makes people psychologically healthy. 


What makes us happy? 


So, what does actually make us happy? In her acclaimed Yale University course, The Science of Well-Being, Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, sets out to explore just that. In this course, Dr. Santos offers eight ways we can improve our health and well-being, based on the research surrounding happiness. We all know that things such as exercise, proper nutrition, and getting enough sleep can improve happiness and overall health, but Dr. Santos dives into the lesser-known habits that happier people prioritize in their lives. Some of her findings include forming deep social connections, setting goals, and savoring every moment in order to practice gratitude. [4]


This same question was also explored in The Grant Study, one of the longest-running studies of adult life ever conducted, which aimed to reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives. The 75 year-long study has tracked the lives of 724 men from different backgrounds, periodically surveying them about their work, home lives, and relationships, as well as their health status and mental states. [5] The study’s most current director, American psychiatrist and Harvard professor Dr. Robert Waldinger, concludes that wealth, fame, or other modern definitions of success are not, in fact, the factors that lead to true happiness. Instead, it is the quality of our social connections and close relationships that really matter. Waldinger ultimately finds that people who are more socially connected are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected and isolated from others. In turn, the research participants who reported being socially isolated and involved in unhealthy or stressful relationships experienced an earlier decline in their physical health, poorer memory and brain function, and ultimately lived shorter lives. [6]


Why should I try to be happier? 


If simply feeling the positive effects that come with satisfaction within your career, joyfulness in healthy relationships, and overall contentment in your life isn’t enough, the astounding health benefits of attempting to be happier might just convince you to try out some of Laurie Santos’ tips for becoming a happier person. Research has found a direct link between optimism and a stronger immune system, better lung function, less pain and better cardiac health, and in 2011, an analysis of nearly 4,000 British men and women found those who said they felt content, happy or excited on a typical day were up to 35% less likely to die prematurely. [7] It is even a consensus within the scientific community that promoting an optimistic mindset could be good preventative medicine for common diseases. Dr. Laura Kubzansky, co-director of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed over 15 different studies encompassing nearly 230,000 people and found that having an optimistic mindset is directly linked to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. [8] By implementing steps to promote happiness within ourselves, such as practicing random acts of kindness, going to that yoga class or simply doing a five-minute meditation, we can improve and maintain our physical (and mental!) health exponentially. 


The Takeaway… 


Although happiness has been a human pursuit for as long as we can remember, it’s no small feat to achieve. Sad times and stressful situations are a part of the human experience, and it is important to feel and learn how to cope with these emotions. However, implementing habits to improve joy and contentment in your life can have bigger impacts on physical, mental and emotional health than you may have ever imagined, because, well, it’s a science.


[1] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/happiness/definition
[2] https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2007/01/the-science-of-happiness.html
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/fashion/happiness-inc.html#:~:text=According%20to%20Sonja%20Lyubomirsky%2C%20you,something%20bad%20happens%2C%20it%20falls
[4] https://www.drlauriesantos.com/science-well-being
[5] https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness
[6] https://www.ted.com/talks
[7] https://www.cnn.com/interactive/health/parallels/happiness-wellness/
[8] https://www.heart.org/en/university-hospitals-harrington-heart-and-vascular/how-happiness-affects-health#:~:text=%E2%80%9CBeing%20happy%20doesn%27t%20just,and%20cardiovascular%20disease%2C%20she%20said