09 Jan What makes us happy?
By Dorothy Foltz-Gray from Prevention Magazine
Happiness, like baking, is something I've always been good at. And that puzzles me: I don't live in a glass house by the sea, I'm not rich or beautiful, I've endured grief and battled depression. It's true that I've been lucky in love–I have a great husband. But I came to him happy. Yet some people who seem to have all the raw materials for happiness–looks, money, success, and love–seem perpetually glum. So what is it that really makes us happy?
The answer is not good fortune. Psychologists have known for decades that even winning the lottery won't make a person happier over the long haul. People simply adapt. Think of what happened when you got your last raise: Odds are, you felt great for the first few paychecks but soon adjusted to it, and now you may be back to feeling underpaid. Such observations have led researchers to conclude that each of us has a set point for happiness–a level of contentment that stays constant through changing circumstances, such as the loss of loved ones or winning big bucks.
If this all sounds a bit depressing, take heart. Recent breakthrough research shows we can make ourselves happier–and how to do it.
The Science of Happiness
Some of the most exciting research in psychology is in a field called positive psychology, a discipline that aims not just to relieve suffering but also to increase happiness. For the past 6 years, Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, and his colleagues have been working to unlock the secrets of living the good life. Seligman, founding director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Authentic Happiness, has found that the key to happiness appears to lie in our internal qualities and character strengths, not in external events. What's more, he says, we can use these qualities–work with them and enhance them–to make ourselves happier over the long run.
A couple of years ago, Seligman's group described and classified the 24 character strengths that make people thrive, including creativity, curiosity, bravery, and kindness. But all these traits aren't equal when it comes to producing satisfaction. Combing through questionnaire responses from more than 5,000 study participants, the researchers found that happiness was most strongly associated with a core subset of the character-trait list that they labeled heart strengths: gratitude, hope, zest, and the ability to love and be loved. Topping the charts was love, says Nansook Park, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and a study author. "Relationships with other people are what make us the happiest," she says. (Learn what your character strengths are at Authentic Happiness.)
Creating New Habits
Seligman's team made a list of 100 "interventions" that people through the ages have suggested as routes to contentment–culling ideas proposed by Buddha and self-improvement gurus alike–and set out to test them. It was, Seligman says, the most ambitious, controlled study of happiness ever done. Last summer, the results of the team's efforts were published in American Psychologist.
For the study, the researchers enlisted more than 500 visitors to Seligman's Web site. The adults completed online questionnaires to assess their level of happiness; then each volunteer was assigned to do one of six exercises for a week. Some wrote and personally delivered a gratitude letter to an individual who had been particularly kind to them but whom they had never adequately thanked, for instance; others recorded three things that had gone well each day. People in a control group wrote about their early memories every night for a week–an exercise that wasn't expected to have much of an impact on their moods. Every few weeks for the next 6 months, the volunteers filled out questionnaires measuring their happiness and depression.
As it turned out, all the exercises, including that of the control group, temporarily bumped up happiness levels. But some interventions proved to have a much bigger, more lasting effect than others. For example, the group that spent a few minutes each night writing about what had gone well that day felt happier for the full 6 months of the study.
"Most of us focus on our weaknesses and on what we don't have," says Carol Kauffman, PhD, a life coach and an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "[By listing good things,] you're training yourself to reverse your focus from what you did wrong to what you did right. You're emphasizing your strengths," and that seems to change the way you feel. Kauffman uses the what-went-well-today intervention with her patients–and does it every night herself.
The "gratitude visit," which focused on building one of the four heart strengths, also produced a lift in happiness scores. In fact, "The exercise decreased depression and increased happiness more than any other intervention," says Park.
"Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one's life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partly outside the self," says Robert A. Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. "It's a very social experience, and it's restorative in times of stress."
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