The Science of Happiness

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Since the Declaration of Independence, American’s have been free to pursue happiness. But there is no guarantee that we will really achieve it. The secret is really knowing where to look for it. Building on this great heritage, we are going to talk today about news on the state-of-the-art science of happiness and how it impacts our emotional and social intelligence. It is also going to bring to light, hopefully for some of our listeners, new insights on learning to focus on choosing to be joyfully responsive to circumstances such as factors related to money or what we might call consumptive happiness. We are going to talk a little bit about the genetics of adventure and the long-term effects that it has on our daring, immigration – where we wander to in life and wind up, our creativity and innovation and how our need for doing versus being can really decrease empathy while increasing pessimism, believe it or not.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I think that is a lot of what is important about understanding how the science of happiness works is about how you look at a situation. Whether it’s a fresh pair of eyes or the beautiful pair that you are already working with, it’s learning to be a glass half full verses a glass half empty. Of course, you and I have been talking for years about the importance of set point. For those of you who are not familiar with that term, there is a formula for happiness that has been around for over a decade. That formula clearly indicates that if you assume a 50% predisposition for being happy or a happiness set-point, what is included in the other 50%?

The bottom line is 40% are the intentional activities and behaviors you choose to engage in on a daily basis. That 10%, which is situational, will eventually pass. If you recognize that you cannot control everything in that other 50%, 10% being situational like mortgage rates, or the economy, or health, grief/death, losing your job; those are things sometimes you cannot control, but that 40% of mindful behaviors and habits that help you increase your happiness.

Dr. Relly Nadler: When we look at who are we becoming; it is really that gap between what is the optimistic expectations/reality people have about a new job or a new position. Everybody goes in with this gap and then the reality may be, oh, this is more hours than I thought, this is harder than I thought, or I’m working with some people that I don’t particularly like, or my boss is this kind of person. So there is this gap and I think we see it a lot, people are often cranky and dissatisfied and as a consequence they have this search for “how can I be happy?” “I thought I was going to be happier than I am.” They ended up being less happy. So this idea that we are talking about is people are trying to find out how they can be happier. Some of the key things are, just from the statistics, 25% of women are taking anti-depressants where about 5% of men are, which is a high ratio. 48% of women and 44% of men admit to eating to improve their mood. It does work, so you are a little stressed out, especially at the end of the day, you have those carbohydrate cravings, you eat more. So one, we are taking medications like anti-depressants and two, we are self-medicating typically with food or it could be alcohol; the martini and all those ways to de-stress.

Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the things I think  is interesting about this new research is when people are asked how happy they are at this stage of their life. Are they as happy as they expected to be at this stage of their life?

When the research was done, about 41% said it was as expected. 28% said they were happier, and then 27% (a little over ¼) said they were not happy. When I saw that, I thought that was pretty good. I thought not happy would be even a little bit higher. It also could be when people are at that 41% or as happy as expected, they may not be raising the bar high enough. They may be thinking, ah, this is good enough. I’m happy enough verses are there some things I could be doing to become happier and be more satisfied with my life?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I think that is a good point, Relly. I think there are things that impact it. How about we talk about finances? People always think that money is going to make them happier, right?  I did a show on ABC TV not to long ago with some data from Dan Gilbert’s work at Harvard on income and happiness. They looked at thousands of individuals who are in relationships that had been stable and who had homes and what we would call good socioeconomic standing; about $50,000 on average. They looked at increasing their income and interestingly enough, when their income was modestly increased to about $75,000 they did get happier, but that happiness actually did not increase significantly after that first bump to $75,000. So the data seems to be clear that if you get an increase in income, it will produce greater happiness but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the millions of dollars or the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we originally thought. In fact, a mere 10% bump in an average income of $50,000 a year will give us an increased or happier mental attitude, which is surprising. You hear most people talk about being happier when they have had hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars more.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I think this is what is great about some of this research, Gilbert’s research called the Easterlin Effect that he did at USC in 1974, which now is being challenged. It then was saying; once our basic needs are met, that income doesn’t increase subjective well-being. Now they are countering that with some of the research you are saying with Gilbert and others; saying well, if we do more longitudinal, money does help you become happier but I think the critical piece you said Cathy, is not how much but really how do you use it. So Ed Diener from the University of Illinois, he is a big name in positive psychology, studied 806 people in 135 countries. Basically one of the findings we found is that money can boost happiness if it allows people to obtain more of the things they really need and desire within their frame of reference.

Find out more about the Science of Happiness Research. What are micro-initiatives that have a macro impact which will help you continue to set the intention for positive feelings? You can find out more by listening to the complete recording of our discussion, without commercials, above.


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