31 Jan 2020
How Science Changed Our Idea of Happiness
Read time: 4 minutes, 27 seconds
Every year, the media shares a report on the world’s happiest countries and societies. Known as the World Happiness Report, it takes into account six key variables: income, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom from corruption, freedom to make choices, and generosity. Scandinavian countries, which generally lead international happiness rankings, tend to perform well in all these areas. Among American countries, Costa Rica ranks at number 12, the United States ranks at number 21, and Mexico at number 23. By contrast, nations devastated by war, like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan, occupy the last places in the list of 156 countries included in the report.
Although the annual world happiness ranking is based on a long and extensive analysis of data, one might ask if happiness really does depend on these six factors. It’s clear that living a long and healthy life, having a supportive social circle, and being free are extremely positive qualities for everyone, and governments of all nations should strive to establish the necessary conditions for their citizens to enjoy this level of happiness.
Even so, are these measures enough to achieve the emotional well-being that seems to come from being satisfied with one’s life?
If we follow the definition provided by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, and positive psychologists, happiness denotes a state of satisfaction rather than a life of nonstop laughter and enjoyment. Happiness is leading a meaningful life, making the most of your time and the gifts you’ve been given, living with purpose, and exercising reflection.
Researchers seeking to understand happiness have made significant progress in the last few decades. We now have an increased understanding of how to be happy, largely thanks to developments in psychology and neuroscience.
Can all individuals be happy? Several studies say yes. Let’s look at some of their conclusions.
Are We Born Happy?
There are some people who can see the beauty and positivity where others see only darkness and problems. But even those with a bleak outlook on life can change their perspective, replacing anxious thoughts and negative assumptions with positive ones. Training the mind to have a positive internal dialogue is a daily exercise and a sign of good mental health.
Recognizing The Good
When a person isn’t happy, they tend to always see the glass half empty: their job is uninteresting, their house isn’t comfortable enough, or their neighbor is too loud. One easy way of starting to cultivate happiness is acknowledging and focusing on the good in our lives.
Therapists frequently recommend writing down three things every night that went well during that day, adding a few details about each one and noting why they made us feel good. They might include a sincere thank-you from a colleague at work, a peaceful walk through the park, or hearing the contagious laugh of a child. When it’s hard for us to see the good in situations, we should focus on creating positive events. By remembering someone’s kind gesture, for instance, we are making room in our minds for positive emotions.
Pain Is Part of Happiness
Being happy is not a reward for avoiding pain. In some cases, happiness means facing negative emotions without letting them overwhelm us. Russ Harris, a therapist and doctor known for his bestselling book The Happiness Trap, says popular beliefs about happiness are dangerous because they prepare people for a “struggle against reality.” Instead of accepting that real life is full of deception, loss, and inconvenience, many people resist them altogether. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” says Harris, “you are going to feel the full gamut of emotions.”
To face the suffering that life’s setbacks and losses can cause, cultivating strong personal relationships is key.
The Effects of Exercise
Of course, we know exercise is good for our physical health. But less mentioned is its positive impact on the brain, by making it more sensitive to happiness. It’s been proven that physically active people are happier and more satisfied with their lives. They feel more connected and have a lower chance of experiencing loneliness or depression.
Working hard towards our goals and making daily progress until we reach them not only activates positive feelings—it also suppresses negative emotions like fear and depression.
The Paradox of Choice
What to eat, where to go on the weekend, who to see, what to wear or buy…the reality is, we are constantly making decisions. Most people believe the more choices they have, the freer and happier they’ll be. But having numerous possibilities can actually lead to increased stress and doubt.
Barry Schwartz, a psychologist dedicated to studying the link between economics and psychology, holds that having too many options tends to make us focus on the missed opportunities. “It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our decisions even before we make them, and blame ourselves for failures. Too much choice undermines happiness,” says Schwartz.
The Wrong Path
Psychologist and writer Dan Gilbert, who defines himself as an expert on happiness, believes most people take the wrong approach to finding lifelong happiness. Gilbert says humans are bad at predicting what will make them happy, especially if they’re basing themselves on past experiences. “The past exists in our memory, after all, and memory is not a perfect recording device: we tend to remember beginnings and ends much more intensely than the middles whether they're eventful or not.”
Sources: World Happiness Report 2019 Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World Happiness Report 2019, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network., Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap, Daniel Gilbert, TED The Surprising Science of Happiness, Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, UC Berkeley, Greater Good Magazine, Five Science-Backed Strategies for More Happiness ; Five Surprising Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain