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The pursuit of happiness

A few years ago, a group of eminent psychologists expressed the view that it was time that psychology changed direction and began to concentrate on what makes people happy and successful – what makes them flourish, instead of focusing on what was wrong with them – their disorders and problems. Thus was born the Positive Psychology movement. Note the word ‘movement’ signalling the almost evangelical zeal for this new approach. In the past few years this has resulted in an outpouring of research on happiness, well being, optimal functioning, and individual strengths. This research is having a significant effect on other areas of psychology: on how we understand stress and coping, on psychotherapy. It is even spilling over into business, with companies taking a new interest in what is called positive organisational psychology.

This new research has given us a better scientific handle on understanding what happiness is, what causes it, what its effects are, how it can be increased. In particular, there is increasing evidence that happiness not just a good thing in itself, but has major consequences for your physical and emotional health, your longevity, and for your economic and career success.

Are happy people successful people? : Effects of being happy

Much to the consternation of the puritans amongst us, there is sound empirical evidence that happiness is associated with success. If you have a successful marriage, or a successful career you are likely to feel happy. The assumption was that it was the success that made people happy. And of course, that’s true. But now evidence is emerging that, at the very least, this works two ways –that is, that actually being happy makes it much more likely that you will be successful in these different domains in life. Or even, that the direction is strongly the other way –that happiness engenders success.

Trying to establish the cause and effect is a fascinating psychological detective story, involving many different types of research. Psychologists have examined groups of people to try to establish the links between happiness and life success at any one time. They have compared happy with unhappy people and tried to understand how individuals with positive and happy feelings behave, and what personal characteristics they have that are associated with success. They have put people into laboratories and experimentally induced happy moods or use interventions to help people become happier and then see if they are more successful in various tasks. Most importantly, from a scientific point of view, they have followed people over a long period, trying to find out whether happiness precedes or follows success.

There is increasing evidence from the longitudinal studies in particular, that happiness is major factor in creating success. For example, in one study where young people aged 18 were followed up at age 26, those with positive emotions at age 18, compared to those with more negative mood, were found at age 26 to be more financially independent, to experience more career success and to have jobs that they saw as more meaningful and allowed them more autonomy and variety at work. They were evaluated more favourably by supervisors in terms of quality of work, dependability, team work. They had less absenteeism. The positive aspects of their work further increased their initial positive feelings, creating a virtuous cycle. Happier people were less likely to have lost their jobs and, if they did, were likely to be reemployed more quickly. Other studies have shown that happier students at age 18 earned more money in their 30s – more than 16 years later – even controlling for their parents income. Happier people receive more pay increases.

But it’s not just all work and no play. Happier people have more friends and people they feel they can rely on – the quantity and quality of their relationships is higher. They report higher satisfaction with friends, are less jealous of others, less likely to experience loneliness, and themselves receive more support from co-workers and supervisors at work. Before marriage, happier people are more likely to describe their current romantic relationship as being of high quality. They are more likely to marry and have more fulfilling marriages; to describe their partner as being their ‘great love’. Not surprisingly, they tend to have partners who are more satisfied with the marriage. Even if they get divorced, happier people are more likely to remarry. Needless to say, being stuck in an unhappy marriage seriously diminish the happiness of even the most positive of people. But, you are likely to avoid such an outcome if you are happy, or can increase your happiness levels, before you get married.

Happier people have better mental and physical health. They report fewer symptoms; have less allergic reactions; report less pain. They miss less work due to illness. They are less likely to suffer respiratory illness, sports injuries, heart attacks or strokes. When they do get sick, they pay fewer visits to the doctor or the A&E, GP, they take less medication. They show much better recovery after cardiac surgery, survive longer after breast cancer, renal disease and spinal injuries and enjoy a better quality of life when diagnosed with cancer

After all that, you won’t be surprised to learn that happier people live longer. The real impact of unhappiness is evidenced by the findings that while smoking knocks five years off a mans life, and seven and a half years off a woman’s life, persistent negative feelings knock 10 years off your life. People with high levels of positive feelings live, on average, seven and a half years longer – even controlling for age, sex, socioeconomic status, loneliness etc. In terms of living longer and healthier, positive feelings are more important than body mass, smoking, or exercise.

So, what exactly do happy people do, how do they behave, what characteristics do they have that produce such good outcomes?

One of the most robust findings about happy people is that their high level of engagement with other people. Happy people actively seek out other people. They have a more positive attitudes to other people; liking and trusting them more. They are open and friendly to people they don’t know. In social situations, they are more outgoing, warm, gregarious, sociable, lively and energetic. They enjoy social activities more.

Happier people are more likely to want to help, and to actually enjoy helping other people. They volunteer more and invest more hours in volunteer effort. They are more likely to donate blood and give to charity. They express more desire to contribute to society. If you feel good, you are more likely to do good. Why? Because positive mood increases your liking of other. This is true all the way from happy pre-schoolers to senior citizens.

If, after reading this far, you think that such paragons of virtue and sociability must be intensely dislikeable, you would be wrong. The opposite is the case. In fact, they are more likely to be judged by others as more physically attractive, more intelligent and competent, less selfish, more socially skilled, more self confident. They are more likely to have personal characteristics that are associated with happiness: a sense of humour, a sense of meaning in life, a natural optimism

Another robust finding about happy people is that they seem to have the knack of seeing any activity, even routine day-to-day activities– as intrinsically motivating and worth doing – the art of transforming a duty into a meaningful project. In general, any activity that provides an experience of belonging, of feeling personally competent, or of acting independently seem to work particularly well in terms of its happiness-increasing potential. Having selected an activity, happy people like to set goals for themselves and register and affirm their progress towards the goal. They are optimistic. They like finding new ways to solve problems and approach issues in their daily lives; and they keep performing well even when they encounter setbacks. As a result, they are more likely to experience themselves as personally competent and that in turn boosts their self esteem, and gives them a sense of mastery and control over their lives.

Happy people work on being happy, paying attention to and amplifying the positive. There is growing evidence that the active and steady build up of positive emotions – pleasure, contentment, interest, love, gratitude, eagerness, confidence, pride – creates very specific cognitive effects. Positive feelings expand attention, encouraging the person to approach (versus avoid) challenges and to explore novel things, situations, people, behaviours and strategies. They encourage continued action (versus giving up), and thus high engagement with the world. They broaden (rather than restrict) your ordinary ways of thinking and acting. They build an open, experimental trail-and error approach to life, resulting in high responsiveness to opportunities and rapid learning.

Happy people do not have perfect lives. They encounter stress and setbacks. But when they do, they react in a very characteristic fashion. They actively try to see the positive side, seeing the stress or set-back as a valuable learning experience, or by actively emphasising the positive improvements in their lives. In other words, they build up positive feelings in the face of negativity. This turns out to be really important because positive emotions undo the adverse effects of stress on cardiovascular functioning. Positive emotions -even fairly mild ones – if experienced immediately after a stressful event can undo the effects of negative feelings and stress reactions such as increased heart rate and raised blood pressure. Positive emotions experienced during chronic stress helps people to cope better and to attend to important information – even if it is negative. For example, optimists pay more attention to medical diagnosis and to treatment details, than pessimists, optimising their chances of recovery. The link between happiness and better physical health becomes clearer.

Compared to unhappy people, happy people perceive, interpret and frame the same events in a more positive way. Faced with a challenge, they feel more in control, and have more confidence about their ability to cope – in fact their sense of control, competence and optimism is likely to be slightly exaggerated. But these positive illusions serve them well and keep them motivated in the face of set-backs. They note negative feedback but are not thrown off balance by it. Even when experiencing negative events, they maintain their optimism, expecting things to get better in the future. Crucially, they compare themselves less to others – especially unfavourably. They tend to be happier with what they have – even if it is not their first choice. The important point here is that happy people are not just simply passively happier with their lot. Rather they actively work to find the positive in a negative or uncertain situation.

Unhappy people do the exact opposite. In an effort to make themselves feel better, they frequently compare themselves to a lot of other people. It is a poor strategy leaving them open to negative upward comparisons, that is, comparing themselves negatively to more successful people, and thus falling prey to envy. In a competitive situation, both happy and unhappy people get a boost in self esteem when peers do less well than themselves. But when peers do better than themselves, happy people are not affected by their peers’ success – but unhappy people are. Unlike unhappy people, who in Gore Vidal’s immortal phrase ‘every time they hear of a colleagues success die a little’ happy people keep focused on their own goals.

There is a now a growing body of evidence on the interventions that work to increase happiness in individuals, relationships and organisations. But as a serviceable and more immediate blueprint for happiness, one study provides a simple formula. Unhappy participants were instructed to copy the behaviours of their happier peers, irrespective of how they were feeling. As a result, they actually felt happier. Now you know how happy people think and behave, simply imitate one of their strategies – even if it does not feel right. As Hitchcock famously said to Grace Kelly who complained that she could not feel the part ‘Then fake it, my dear’. And like Grace Kelly, you may find that simply acting as if you are happy will actually make you happy.

Originally published in the The Irish Times Magazine.

Posted: 25 August 2007