Mid-Life Blues

Researchers confirmed recently what a lot of people are feeling — the mid-life blues.

Researchers from Great Britain and the U.S. analyzed data of more than two million people and spanning 35 years. They analyzed them for depression, anxiety, happiness and life satisfaction.

They found a U-shaped curve in which people reported being happiest in their 20s and in their 50s and older, but that both men and women were more likely to be depressed and were generally less happy in their 40s.

In fact, they discovered that for both sexes, the probability of depression peaks around the age of 44.

Not everybody is convinced the “slump” is all about age or other demographics. Previous happiness studies have suggested that demographics play a small role in overall happiness. For example, past studies have shown no significant differences in subjective well-being based on gender. In addition, some researchers have noted some differences in the age curve based on a particular culture or country.

One of the co-authors of the study, Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at the University of Warwick in Britain, thinks that this U-shaped curve of happiness occurs because people begin to confront their limitations and unrealistic dreams in their 30s and hit a low-point in their 40s. After that, they move past their disappointments and go on to feel more satisfied as they age. Other researchers have suggested that happiness improves with age because of some adaptation mechanism, which allows people to adjust better to changing circumstances.

A third potential explanation is that watching friends and family die off makes people more grateful and satisfied as they age.

Whatever the reasons, the study does point towards paying careful attention to people in the 40s for signs of psychological or mental distress. Mid-life blues could have serious and long-lasting damaging effects to not only the individuals themselves, but to family, friends, and business colleagues as well.

Maybe what’s needed is a mental checkup when one turns 40. We do it for our physical health. Why not do it for our psychological health as well?

Could positive psychology techniques help reduce the effects of depression?

That was the theory leading to a series of preliminary studies by renowned psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman a few years ago. Seligman and his team wanted to know if they could use a more proactive approach than just targeting depression’s symptoms to get better results.

As a result, they studied the lives of more than 300 college students at the University of Pennsylvania, some of whom were categorized as clinically depressed.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if three intervention components would make much of a difference. Those components were having positive emotions, being engaged, and having a “meaningful” life.

Positive emotions included attitudes about the past, present and future and learning skills to amplify both the intensity and duration of these emotions. The idea of engagement came from another researchers idea of “flow” — that state of mind in which a person is totally involved and absorbed in something important to him or her. And finally, a “meaningful life” meant a person was using his or her signature strengths and talents to serve something that was bigger than themselves, such as church or their family.

Using several different exercises, the researchers followed the attitudes of the participants over a period of one year.

They found that the positive psychology exercises relieved depression symptoms for at least six months compared with no intervention, and they decreased levels of mild-to-moderate depression over a one year period.

The researchers would be the first to note that the study sample was small and may not reflect larger populations. And no one is saying these techniques are the best and only way to relieve depression symptoms. In fact, pharmaceutical interventions continue to have the most dramatic improvement in the lives of millions of depressed individuals.

Still, the results show promise. Positive psychology interventions could very well make a difference to people in dire need of treatment.

Source: Positive Psychotherapy. Seligman, Martin E. P., Rashid, Tayyab, Parks, Acacia C., American Psychologist, Vol. 61, Issue 8

When it comes to friendships, is quantity or quality better for your overall well-being?

Researchers have demonstrated convincingly that friendships matter when it comes to happiness. In fact, some studies have suggested that the number of friends was positively related to happiness. Implicit in these findings is that a person would be happier if he or she had more friends.

But other researchers took a different look — not at quantity, but quality. They wanted to know if there were different kinds of friendships that contributed to one’s happiness and which feature was the strongest predictor.

To learn more, they surveyed 280 college students (192 women and 88 men). They ran them through a variety of questionnaires to better understand their feelings and attitudes about friendships.

What they found may or may not surprise you.

First, they found that a “best friendship” environment significantly predicted happiness compared to the overall number of friends. Thus, even though one might have several friendships, it is the best friend that contributes most to one’s happiness.

They also found that if the best friendship was low in quality, the high quality of the other close friends did not make a difference in the happiness of that person. In other words, best friends matter more, even if the relationship is not as strong as it could be.

Third, they found that intimacy is not the reason best friendships matter in terms of happiness. It’s companionship that matters. This makes sense since other studies show that activities contribute to a person’s happiness and they are often the result of some companionship, not necessarily intimacy.

What does all of this mean?

It means a person doesn’t need a large number of friends to be happy, nor do those friendships require intimacy. Instead, combine companionship with a best friend and the result will likely be greater overall well-being.

Source:  Looking to happy tomorrows with friends: Best and close friendships as they predict happiness. Melikşah Demir, Metin Özdemir and Lesley A. Weitekamp. Journal of Happiness Studies. Vol. 8. No. 2, June 2007

Simple things make us happy.

That deceptively simple and obvious observation has now been backed up by research conducted last year in England at the University of Nottingham.

Researchers wanted to compare the happiness “levels” of lottery jackpot winners with a control group. Using what’s called the “Satisfaction with Life Scale,” people in both groups were asked how satisfied they were in comparison to different elements in their life, their different moods, and how often they treated themselves .

Despite how we all think we would act, the reserachers found that it wasn’t the flashy cars that dramatically increase one’s happiness level. Instead, it was reading a book, enjoying a bottle of wine or listening to music that really made a difference.

The results are interesting for one other interesting fact — lottery jackpot winners were on the whole happier than non-winners (95 percent of them said they were positive about their life compared with 71 percent in the non-winner group).

Thus, even though they were happier becaue of their winnings, both groups shared a greater interest in cost-free indulgences, such as a long bath, playing games or enjoying their hobby. Those who described themselves as being less happy didn’t those the cost-free indulgences.

The researchers concluded — spending time relaxing is the secret to a happy life. “Cost-free pleasures are the ones that make the difference.”

Source: Source: Millionaires. ScienceDaily

Does a combination of positive events and circumstances result in happiness or does a happy mindset result in positive circumstances?

Researchers have struggled with that question and it’s an important one. Many self-help books tell us that if we just change our thinking, then success and happiness will follow. But what if it’s the other way around? What if you must first do things to improve your overall well-being, with your initial attitude being irrelevant or minimal? Which approach is most accurate? If someone is unhappy, which path should one pursue?

To answer this question, several years ago researchers looked at both at the same time, putting nearly 200 psychology students through a series of tests. Specifically, they wanted to see what impact four areas of daily life would have on one’s perception of their happiness — their physical health, the amount of daily hassles in their lives, their overall view of the world, and their way of thinking that deals with real-world situations and problems.

What did their research lead them to conclude?

They concluded that happiness works both ways and that there is no single “secret.” For example, they found that the more daily hassles a person reported, the lower his or her reported level of happiness. Similarly, people who reported high levels of physical symptoms also tended to report high levels of daily hassles and see the world as being less benevolent — both of which contribute to less than optimal level of well-being.

At the opposite end, the research showed that if someone had a general disposition towards happiness or life satisfaction, then they tended to report fewer daily hassles, better physical health, and seemed to cope better with real-world situations. In that case, the personality caused the others to occur.

This early research in happiness is consistent with more recent studies which suggest one’s level of happiness is a combination of genes, circumstances and direct control. In other words, happiness is a combination of who you are, where you are and what you do. While psychologists debate the percentage of each one of those “slices” of the happiness pie — what is clear is this: the cause and effect works both ways. It helps to have a happy disposition, but it’s not a necessity. Doing certain things can improve one’s overall well-being, in spite of any hardships, circumstances or personality influences that may stand in the way.

Source: Integrating top-down and bottom-up structural models of subjective well-being: A longitudinal investigation. By: Feist, Gregory J., Bodner, Todd E., Jacobs, John F., Miles, Marilyn, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 68, Issue 1

When it comes to goals, what you pursue and how you pursue them can make an enormous difference in your overall well-being.

In the past several years researchers have studied what many of us know intuitively — money or the pursuit of money probably won’t make us happy. And yet, the desire continues. Entrepreneurs seek the next “killer app.” Gamblers roll the dice and punch their lotto cards. We all continue to cling to the hope and fantasy that if we only had a lot of money all of our woes would end. We would be living on cloud nine.

Deep down, we know it doesn’t work that way.

But researchers wanted to confirm that gut feeling in a series of experiments. They also wanted to see to what extent intrinsic (inwardly) goals affected our well-being compared to extrinsic (external) goals, such as wealth, power and social acceptance.

Not surprisingly, they found that when people focused on external goals, there was a stronger negative relationship between those goals and their well-being. In other words, pursuing wealth, power, etc. had a more damaging effect on one’s happiness compared to pursuing intrinsic goals.

Several reasons could explain the connection.

First, researchers believe people strongly pursuing extrinsic goals tend to have more superficial relationships, engage in more social comparisons, and allow those external pursuits to crowd out enjoyable and satisfying activities.

But it could also be that people with traits such as high insecurity, low self-esteem, or low cooperativeness are attracted to extrinsic goal settings and diminished well-being. Thus, the two go hand-in-hand because of these personality traits.

What is clear is this — people’s choice of goals affects one’s overall, long-term well-being. In addition, the focus of those goals and the dynamic process with which those goals are pursued make a big difference in our lives. People who wish to be happier in their lives may be better served, for example, in focusing more on those goals that involve growth, connections and contribution, as opposed to those goals that involve money, beauty and popularity. In addition, goals that are interesting and more personally relevant to us will also contribute more to our overall well-being than goals that forced or pressured upon us.

Pursue your goals because of what they will do for you on the inside, not for what they will do for you on the outside.

Source: Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R., Deci, E., & Kasser, T. (2004). The independent effects of goal contents and motives on well-being: It’s both what you pursue and why you pursue it. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 475-486.

The Broaden Hypothesis

Simply put — positive emotions broaden one’s thinking.

Given the opposite environment — one in which negative emotions emerge — this makes perfect sense. What do people express when they are in a funk or depressed? They say they can’t think of anything else; their thought processes narrow. Many people in that situation even say even their vision narrows — the “looking through a narrow tunnel” syndrome.

Now, researchers have confirmed that the opposite occurs when positive emotions exist. They say that people who experience positive emotions “show a style of broad-minded coping in which they step back from the current problems and consider them from multiple angles.”

Obviously, that approach comes in handy during a stressful situation. People in a positive state are more likely to reappraise the situation in a positive light and be more goal-directed. They are also more likely to infuse ordinary events with positive meaning, which in turns help them survive or thrive despite adversity.

As corny as it may sound, Norman Vincent Peale got it right — the power of positive thinking rests in its ability to broaden, not narrow, our thoughts, perceptions and actions. If you want to change your actions, change your emotions first.

Source: Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Barbara L. Fredrickson and Christine Branigan. Cognition and Emotion 19 (3), 313-332 (2005)

College Happiness

Can higher income and higher job satisfaction be tied back to cheerfulness in college?

That appears to be the case if you believe research conducted several years ago.

The researchers looked at answers to a survey given by more than 13,000 freshman college students who entered college in 1976. Nineteen years later the researchers looked at how their lives had turned out, specifically looking at their incomes, job satisfaction and unemployment history.

Cheerfulness (or a positive outlook) generally has a positive effect on income. The better the outlook, the higher the income. Those with a more positive attitude also had less incidents of unemployment.

Why the connection?

Researchers think several dynamics are at play. First, they say cheerfulness may have a motivational element. They say that happier individuals may be more likely to anticipate success and so are more willing to tackle difficult or challenging tasks. Potential setbacks don’t have the same negative impact on them compared to other people. That may be especially useful in work environments as their “can do” attitude translates into better performance and greater rewards.

Second cheerful people may have more social skills and be more adept at the interpersonal dynamics at play in a job. Individuals with a pleasant or upbeat personality may also be offered more desirable positions or be more successful at persuading others.

A third possibility may be that upbeat people also may get more favorable performance ratings. A “halo effect” may occur where an overall general impression creeps into evaluations of specific behaviors.

The research leads to an intriguing question. If income levels can be predicted based on one’s attitude in college, should students seek out a personality/attitude survey that might give them some early feedback? While income should not be the sole criteria for a happy and successful life, it does matter. An early tool may help students evaluate their mindset before jumping into a competitive job market.

Source: Dispositional Effect and Job Outcomes. Ed Diener, Carol Nickerson, Richard E. Lucas, Ed Sandvik. Social Sciences Research.59, 229-259.


Mo Money, Mo Money

Why do people want more money?

Philosophers, economists, and researchers have been pondering that question for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One reason for the question — more money does not contribute that much to a person’s happiness.

If that is true, then why do people want more money?

There could be several explanations, according to researchers.

First, it could be that people don’t realize more money will not raise their well-being, although this is suspect since in studies most people say that money is not that important in their hierarchy of values.

It could also be that people enjoy the goal of attaining higher incomes more than the money itself and what it represents.

One other explanation, according to researchers, is that people may seek money because it produces short-terms benefits, even though a person’s long-term happiness does not move.

And finally, people may feel a strong need to acquire money, goods and services simply because of societal pressure. Individuals may feel they need to buy things to gain status and not be perceived as failures.

Whatever the reason, the research remains pretty strong — once a minimum level of existence or income occurs — higher income has only a modest impact on a person’s long-term happiness.

Source: Will money increase subjective well-being? Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. Social Indicators Research, 57, 119-169 (2002).

Values and Happiness

That which we value tends to make us happier.

That seemingly innocuous and obvious statement has a lot behind it.

For example, what exactly do we value? Do we know? Is it material wealth? Is it achievement? Is it some combination? Most people assume they know what their values are. Politicians certainly talk enough about it. Is there a universal set of values most people share?

To learn more about how our values drive our well-being, researchers at the University of Illinois a number of years ago asked students to keep a journal for nearly a month straight, asking them at the end of each day to rate how good or bad a day it was and whether or not they were satisfied with certain things, like their social life.

They discovered that day-to-day satisfaction is strongly influenced by the domain we value the most. Thus, if achievement was highly valued by the students, achievement-oriented individuals tended to evaluate a day as good when they excelled in some form of achievement. Similarly, people who stressed benevolence evaluated their day as good when they had a positive social interaction.

All this means is that people find different activities more or less rewarding. No surprise there. But think about the consequences. It means, for example, that not everybody places achievement at his or her highest value level and that’s okay. We don’t all have to be high achievers or social magnets to be happy.

Find what you do value and focus on that, not on what society as a whole believes.

Source: Value as a Moderator in Subjective Well-Being. Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener, Eunkook Suh, Richard E. Lucas, Journal of Personality 67:1; February, 1999

Are extroverts happier?

The research points in that direction.

While the actual mechanism remains unclear, a number of different studies seem to suggest that on average those people labeled as “extroverted” tend to be happier both in the short-term and long-term.

But there are some interesting subtleties to the research.

For example, two researchers seemed to demonstrate that extroverts have higher average levels of positive emotions because they react more positively than introverts to the same daily stimuli and events. In other words, it’s that reaction that contributes to their overall well-being.

Meanwhile, other findings seem to contradict a long-held belief.

Many people assume that because extroverted people gain high levels of satisfaction through social interactions and relationships (think traveling salesperson or social butterfly), those social interactions are the primary reason for their happiness. Conversely, if you don’t have similar kinds of social relationships, then you won’t be as happy.

However, one study suggests that extroverts are also happier than introverts whether they live alone or with others, work in nonsocial jobs or in social jobs, or live in rural or urban areas. In fact, another study shows that extroverts do not spend more time with others, although they were still happier than introverts.

All of this research confirms the overwhelming belief in research circles that heredity plays a very strong (although not exclusive) role in one’s ongoing level of happiness or unhappiness.

What does this mean for people who are introverted?

It does not mean they can’t or won’t be happy, but it does suggest that they may need to pay a lot more attention to their needs in order to counteract the potential negative effects from hereditary forces.

Source: Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. By: Diener, Ed, Suh, Eunkook M., Lucas, Richard E., Smith, Heidi L., Psychological Bulletin, 00332909, 19990301, Vol. 125, Issue 2

Happiness helps you live longer.

Most people ascribe to that maxim, even if they’ve never seen the research backing it up. It just makes sense.

But for several years now, the research has demonstrated a clear correlation between happiness and a longer life. It first started with a follow-up study of the now famous Minnesota nuns. Comparing their essays when they first entered the order and their ages, researchers found that of those rated as writing “happier” essays — 90 percent of them lived past the age of 85 compared with only 34 percent who were rated in the least happy percentile.

Another study of Mayo Clinic patients demonstrated the same thing. As part of their admittance, 800 patients answered questions about whether their outlook was optimistic or pessimistic. Forty years later, of the 200 patients who had died, the optimists showed 19 percent greater longevity than the pessimists.

Longevity clearly results from genetics, lifestyle, and other factors (perhaps even luck). But one thing is clear — a positive attitude and happier mindset can extend one’s life and make it richer in the process.

Source: Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. Alan Carr. Brunner-Routledge. New York. 2004

With European populations aging, researchers have been turning their attention to mature adults and their various levels of happiness and unhappiness.

Here are some of their findings:

  • Older people living alone were more likely to be depressed, lonely and unhappy and to be less satisfied with life than those living with a spouse.
  • Those living with a relative or friend were more likely to be lonely than those living with a spouse.
  • Men living with a relative or friend were less likely to be happy or satisfied with life than those living with a wife.
  • In most regions of Europe, older women who were unmarried were in general happier living with friends and family than alone. But this did not apply to women in Nordic countries where there was no significant difference in happiness levels between living alone or with other people.
  • In England, older women rated their health better if they lived alone rather than with a husband. However, men and women living alone had a higher mortality risk than those who lived with a spouse.

Keep a person satisfied in his or her job and it will result in superior job performance.

At least that’s been the prevailing wisdom.

But now a researcher says it doesn’t quite work that way. Nathan Bowling, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Wright State, says that his research shows that satisfaction does not cause performance. Instead, he says that employee personality characteristics, such as self-esteem, emotional stability, extroversion and conscientiousness determine it.

According to Bowling, the studies show that employees who have an overall negative attitude to all things in life likely won’t find job satisfaction, regardless of performance, because of their personality characteristics.

“Emotional stability matters a lot,” Bowling said. “People who are neurotic, those who tend to be anxious, depressed, regardless of the situation, typically won’t find satisfaction no matter how many jobs they try.”

What are the implications of his work?

Bowling says that workplace interventions designed to improve performance by exclusively targeting employee satisfaction are unlikely to be effective. He also suggests that the studies show that intelligence is one of the things that drives the performance. Another common denominator of solid performing employees, according to Bowling, are those who exhibit a high level of conscientiousness — those who are detail-oriented, hard workers and who set goals.

Source: Is the Job Satisfaction-Job Performance Relationship Spurious: A Meta-Analytic Examination. Source: Bowling, N.A. (2007). Journal of Vocational Behavior, 71, 167-185.

We compare ourselves to others. We compare our houses, our cars, our success and even our kids. In some cases, it makes us feel better. We feel better when we compare ourselves to those people who don’t have what we have because it gives us self-enhancement or reassurance. It bolsters our self-esteem.

But the reverse works as well. We can often feel sad, depressed, jealous or angry when we compare ourselves “upward.”

The simple truth is — rightly or wrongly — we all learn not to judge our actions based on some internal measurement, but on the measurement of others.

A decade ago researchers took a closer look at this social comparison phenomenon and added to our knowledge of it.

They found that happy individuals seem to be less sensitive to unsolicited comparison information and less vulnerable to unfavorable comparisons than unhappy people. They also surmised that happy people tend to use such information sparingly and selectively. This approach seemed to protect a person’s well-being and self-esteem.

What was their observation?

While comparing to someone else’s success can be inspiring to us if looked at positively — focusing on one’s own outcomes, acknowledging the success of others without envy, and taking little satisfaction in the failures of others was perhaps a better prescription for happiness.

Source: Hedonic Consequences of Social Comparison: A Contrast of Happy and Unhappy People. Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1141-1157 (1997)

Here’s to the Danes!

Politicians who swear U.S. citizens will be happier if they just lowered taxes may want to give the people of Denmark a second look.

Based on world-wide surveys, the Danes typically rank the highest in happiness. And yet, they pay some of the highest taxes in the world — anywhere between 50 and 70 percent.

How can that be?

One possible reason — the government covers all health care and education, and it spends more on children and the elderly than any country in the world per capita. The citizens also say their system is efficient for its small population (5.5 million people).

But there may be another reason, according to this article. Since a banker can end up taking home as much money as an artist, people don’t chose careers based on income or status. Some Danes call it ‘Jante-lov,’ which translates roughly into “You’re no better then anybody else.” In other words, garbage collectors are just as valued as doctors or lawyers.

Another possible explanation for their happiness — Danes are very social. About 90 percent of them belong to some social club, many of which are paid for by the government. Shopping and consuming also is not a top priority. Along with less emphasis on “stuff” and a strong social fabric, the Danes also have a very high level of trust in each other and in their government.

All the necessary ingredients for a healthy, happy population.

It turns out pleasure comes in a bottle — albeit an expensive one.

That’s what researchers discovered recently when they tested the neural activity of study participants after showing them expensive and inexpensive wines.

The results showed increased brain activity in the the medial orbitofrontal cortex — an area of the brain believed to encode pleasure related to taste, odors and music — when participants tasted “pricey” wines. They also found that inflating the price of a bottle of wine enhanced a person’s experience of drinking it, based on the corresponding neural activity.

But here’s the interesting part.

It was a blind taste test. Participants never knew the quality of the wine. They were just told the price. In fact, researchers presented two of the wines twice, once with the true price tag, and again with a fake one. They also passed off a $90 bottle of wine for one they said was $10 and showed a $5 dollar bottle as one costing $45.

Researchers say that their study demonstrates how subjective beliefs come into play with respect to the quality of an experience.

“If you believe that the experience is better, even though it’s the same wine, the rewards center of the brain encodes it as feeling better,” said Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology and lead researcher.

Marketers have known this for years. This just confirms it.

The probability of living longer increases by 14 percent for individuals with high well-being compared to those with low well-being.

Researchers reached that conclusion as a result of a sweeping meta-study several years ago. They looked at approximately 150 different experimental, ambulatory and longitudinal studies studies that have been conducted over the years that tested the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes.

The results showed that happiness does indeed link to short-term health outcomes, long-term health outcomes and disease or symptom control.

Also, one of the other interesting findings — happiness may improve our recovery time from a stressful situation. Cardiovascular and endocrine activity normally increases as a result of stress. But the researchers believe well-being may disrupt the chronic activity of that potential negative effect. These findings are consistent with another study in which heart activity returned more quickly to baseline (or normal) levels after watching positive, emotion-inducing films.

In other words, happiness may not prevent us from reacting to a stressful situation, which is, after all, a natural occurrence built into our DNA. However, a state of well-being can help us bounce back more quickly to a state of normalcy and not let the negative effects of stress take their toll over the long-term.

Just remember that the next time some nutcase cuts you off in traffic.

Source: Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes. Howell, R. T., Kern, M. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. Health Psychology Review, 1, 1-54 (2007)

On average, most people do not experience long-term changes in satisfaction following marriage.

That surprising conclusion was reached by researchers studying marital status and life satisfaction in a longitudinal sample of more than 1,500 people back in 2003. The researchers looked at how baseline levels of happiness change or don’t change based on dramatic life events, such as marriage, divorce or the death of a spouse.

For example, researchers say the study suggests that people who get married and stay married are more satisfied than average long before the marriage occurs. One possible reason — a person who is very satisfied with life prior to marriage probably already has a rich social network and thus has less to gain from the companionship of marriage. Thus, while marriage is a positive occurrence for those people, it’s not life changing. Conversely, a person who is lonely or less happy before marriage has much more to gain.

The results of this study tweak the notion that we all fall back into a “baseline” of happiness after a significant event occurs. The reality is more nuanced. Some people do resort back to previous levels of happiness after the initial phase of their marriage. In other words, they “settle in.” But others don’t. In fact, they report far lower levels of happiness after marriage than they experienced before marriage. One way researchers explain these differences is that while marriage can be very rewarding, it can also be very stressful to people and that stress may cause long-term damage to one’s overall satisfaction system.

To sum up — while marriage can be a life-changing experience (and not always for the better), it’s impact on our long-term happiness appears smaller than we realize, especially if we were pretty satisfied prior to going into it. That’s not to suggest marriage is a waste of time or not valuable. On the contrary. It’s a major satisfaction resource. But perhaps it means expectation levels should be tempered prior to this important event.

Source: Re-examining adaptation and the setpoint model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003).  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

Counting Kindness

People can become happier and more grateful by simply counting acts of kindness for one week.

That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers who surveyed a group of Japanese undergraduate students and women.

They also found that that happy people are more kind in the first place and that they can become even happier, kinder and more grateful following this simple intervention.

Why does kindness have such a positive effect?

One reason might be that kindness is a valuable human strength and contributes to good social relationships. Another explanation revolves around the notion that positive emotions may lead people to make and solidify new bonds and to develop optimism and senses of identity and goal orientation. Therefore, if people “experience positive emotions and optimal social conditions as a result of their own kindness, an upward spiral may be created” (the broaden-and-build theory of subjective well-being).

Bottom line — count your acts of kindness for one week and see if it doesn’t make you feel better or happier.

Source: Happy People Become Happier Through Kindness: A Counting Kindness Intervention. Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K, & Fredrickson, B. L. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 361-375. (2006)

Youth and Happiness

Today’s youth may be surrounded by technological wizardry, but are they mentally healthy or flourishing?

We know some of them are clearly in an unhappy state. It’s estimated that two of every 10 children and youth will have had some form of mental illness and one in 10 children will have some episode of depression before their 14th birthday. But does the absence of mental illness suggest mental “healthiness?”

To answer these questions, researchers looked at data collected on more than 1,200 youth between the ages of 12-18.

They found that more youth (about one half) are moderately mentally healthy than are “flourishing” or mentally healthy (about 40 percent) , whereas a small portion are not mentally healthy and are languishing (about 6 percent). Not surprisingly, the study shows that young people between the ages of 12-14 (middle school) are flourishing the most, while the mental health in youth ages 15–18 is moderate. There appears to be about a 10 percent loss of flourishing between middle school and high school.

That’s unfortunate since the research also strongly implies that those young people who are flourishing “had the fewest depressive symptoms and conduct problems, and the highest levels of global self-concept, self-determination, closeness to other people, and school integration.” Conversely, young people who were considered “languishing” had the highest number of depressive symptoms and conduct problems.

The question is — what are we doing to evaluate whether or not a young person entering high school is more or less susceptible to the apparent “slippage” of his or her mental health? Can we prevent or retard this phenomenon?

Source: Mental Health in Adolescence: Is America’s Youth Flourishing? Keyes, Corey L. M. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 76(3), Jul 2006. pp. 395-402.

Could naturally increased levels of blood serotonin improve mood?

One Canadian researcher thinks so. He argues that elevated levels of serotonin may be an alternative to drug-induced mood improvement.

What are some strategies that could elevate serotonin? The scientist looked at the research surrounding four main areas.

First, he says self-induced changes in mood itself can influence serotonin synthesis. Thinking positive and happy thoughts seem to have some effect on serotonin levels, which in turn improve mood — a kind of self-improvement “loop.”

Second, he says exposure to bright light has a positive effect on serotonin levels.

Third, he says that exercise, especially to the point of fatigue, can improve serotonin synthesis.

And finally, he says diet (specifically tryptophan) can improve one’s naturally produced levels of serotonin. The researcher cautions that just eating foods high in serotonin (such as bananas) may not improve mood. That’s because the serotonin in the bananas doesn’t cross what he calls the “blood–brain barrier.”

What does this all mean?

It means there may be viable alternatives to drugs in improving mood and ultimately adding to one’s well-being. A note of caution — that does not mean antidepressants are bad or harmful. On the contrary. Many have found them to literally be life-savers. But this thread of thinking should give some confidence to those who are averse or reluctant to take antidepressants. Some mood improvement and happiness can be achieved, it seems, without them.

Source: How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Simon N. Young. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 32 (6) 394-399. 2007

One dominant belief in well-being and happiness research revolves around the idea that we all have a “set point” happiness level. That is, through genetics and early development we establish a stable platform of happiness or unhappiness that doesn’t change much during adulthood. Major life events can cause us to move us away from that set-point, but we generally return to it over time. It is who we are.

New research, however, is tweaking or challenging that belief.

Some say adults can show large changes in life satisfaction over time and it’s permanent.

Researchers in Australia, for example, looked at responses from a long-term German survey which seemed to show that that the people most likely to record large changes in life satisfaction are those who scored high on the personality traits of extraversion and/or neuroticism.

What can we conclude?

For most of us, happiness levels probably remain stable over time. We are who we are. However, for some people, happiness levels change dramatically and remain changed, perhaps in large part because of their personality. If you are an extroverted or neurotic person, you may be more likely to change your happiness — positively or negatively — over time. If nothing else, being aware of that potential may be an important self-discovery.

Source: The Set-Point Theory of Well-Being: Negative Results and Consequent Revisions. Bruce Heady. Social Indicators Research, Vol. 85, Number 3, (2008)

Does increasing happiness foster or sustain the conditions for peace?

Researchers explored that important question by reviewing the survey responses of 52,000 people in 51 countries.

They found several interesting correlations. First, they found that at the individual level self-described happy people tended to have more confidence in the government and armed forces, a greater emphasis on postmaterialist values, stronger support for democracy, less intolerance of immigrants and racial groups, and a greater willingness to fight for one’s country. For example, researchers say participatory governments require individuals to trust that their fellow citizens will not abuse civil and political liberties that are a part. Thus, “by facilitating trust and cooperation, subjective well-being may have important implications for tolerance, as well as support for democracy and individual freedom.”

But these positive attitudes can be greatly affected by the conditions at the national level. Thus, the level of the GNP, violence, inequality, and a country’s overall well-being levels could dampen or diminish those attitudes at the personal level. For example, research suggests that when people perceive a threat or experience fear and anger, they are more likely to endorse punitive measures and are less politically tolerant.

The researchers (Ed Diener and William Tov) bring this all together by saying that while improving individual happiness looks to be a critical foundation for the building of lasting peace in a country, improving the political and economic foundations within a nation must be present as well.

Source: Subjective Well-Being and Peace by Ed Diener and William Tov, Journal of Social Issues 63 (2), 421–440.

The Happiness Index

Here’s an intriguing thought — what if our leading economic indicators were supplemented with a happiness or well-being index? Would we have a different appraisal of the U.S. economy? Would we create different public policy?

Two of the leading psychologists in the field of well-being studies — Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman — made that provocative suggestion several years ago in a highly detailed report.

Their observation? We should include it. They argued that income and wealth generation is only one indication of the overall state of a nation (albeit a strong one). For example, they cite that while economic output has risen steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in life satisfaction during this period, and in fact there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust.

In other words, we’re making more and enjoying it less. Shouldn’t we be measuring that and building policy around it?

The researchers argue that if we measured different factors, such as the well-being of workers, we would have much different outcomes and thus would be more willing to take steps to improve them. Thus, perhaps U.S. policymakers would be more inclined to consider legislation or incentives that rewarded companies for improving the overall well-being of their workers, even if it meant initially higher costs or lower profits. (Ironically, happy workers are productive workers. Thus, a business should promote well-being.)

A different perspective might also motivate policymakers to fund programs that reduce mental disorders or generate more positive social relationships.

The U.S. economy has evolved and matured. Shouldn’t we do the same with respect to our appraisal of it?

Source: Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being, Ed Diener, Martin EP. Seligman (2004) Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5 (1), 1–31


“She flourished in her new job.”

If there’s one word that encapsulates much of the research surrounding happiness it would be flourishto live within an optimal range of human functioning.

But what is that optimal range and can it be proven?

In 2005 two researchers concluded that the optimal level of flourishing existed when the number of genuine positive emotions outpaced the number of negative emotions by a ratio of 3-to-1 (actually 2.9). They came to that conclusion after analyzing the daily reportings of about 200 people over a period of one month.

Interestingly, the researchers said that other studies indicate that only about 20 percent of the U.S. population are flourishing at any given time. The rest, they say, are “languishing.”

Did they detect an upper limit? Researchers Frederickson and Losada believe inappropriate or non-genuine positive emotions disrupt this delicate balance of well-being. They also said that appropriate negative emotions are a critical ingredient within human flourishing.

In summary, the researchers said optimal human flourishing has four key components: goodness, generativity (meaning broad and flexible behavior), growth and resilience.

In other words, to be happy is to flourish.

Source: Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada, American Psychologist

Want a simple way to add more happiness to your life? Become more curious.

Studies have clearly demonstrated the value of gratitude and acts of kindness as they relate to one’s well-being. Could a conscious effort to improve one’s curiosity also improve happiness levels as well?

Researchers asked about 100 study participants to keep a journal and record their levels of curiosity over time. They also measured a person’s tendency towards curiosity before their recordings began.

The results?

According to the researchers, people with greater baseline curiosity engaged in more frequent growth-oriented behaviors and experienced a greater presence of life satisfaction than those with less curiosity. Their satisfaction levels were also not just positive over time, but from day-to-day as well.

And while the study had the usual limitations (including a limited number of participants), the results make sense. As the researchers put it: “…People with greater curiosity challenge their views of self, others, and the world with an inevitable stretching of information, knowledge, and skills.”

Source: Curiosity and Pathways to Well-Being and Meaning in Life: Traits, States, and Everyday Behaviors by Todd B. Kashdan and Michael F. Steger

Positive Illusions

So he leaves the lights on around the house. She barely picks up after herself.

So what?

Studies show positive, idealized illusions about our spouse or partner often generate greater satisfaction and less conflict than thinking in terms of “reality.”

According to researchers, people apparently seem to project their image of an idealized partner on the partner they possess. They also report being happier in their relationship when they see their partner more generously than their partner see themselves, and they are happier in their relationships when their partner puts the best possible spin on them and returns the favor.

Researchers say all of these positive illusions become self-fulfilling. People seem to create the partner they desire by idealizing them. They also come to see the same virtues in themselves that their partner initially perceived in them.

Source: Reflections on the Self-Fulfilling Effects of Positive Illusions by Sandra L. Murray, John G. Holmes and Dale W. Griffin

The Trade-Off of Goals

Goals typically produce feelings of contentment and well-being. Without them, life often seems without purpose or meaning.

But is there a flip side? Can goals be harmful as well?

Researchers have studied this important question, especially since so much satisfaction and happiness seems tied to goal-setting and accomplishment.

What is the trade-off?

Anxiety and worry. Researchers say that when people are highly committed to their goals, they may fear failure or worry that they won’t achieve them. This stress or anxiety can often counteract the potential positive effects of goal-setting. For example, not accomplishing one’s goals may threaten a person’s self-worth, even when that person holds positive perceptions of accomplishment.

In other words, goals are good. We must, however, always understand and appreciate the trade-offs associated with them.

Source: The Psychological Trade-Offs of Goal Investment by Eva M. Pomerantz, Jill L. Saxon, and Shigehiro Oishi

Optimal Happiness

If only we could find our optimal level of happiness.

Studies suggest it has a lot to do with specific circumstances and activities.

For example, an optimal level of happiness seems to work best for relationships. That is, being at a high level of satisfaction in a relationship helps you in that kind of environment. You want joy from others, especially since relationships constitute some of the best sources of happiness in our lives. And if you’re not happy, then the relationship may experience problems or risk falling apart.

At the same time, being very happy may not work in other circumstances.

Take work. Optimal happiness may lead to complacency, whereas being moderately happy may propel you to improve, change, grow or seek a different environment and that is generally beneficial. In the domain of achievement, being at the peak of your happiness level may actually be counterproductive. The same may be said for people in college. Very happy people have been shown NOT to have the best grades (although those same people do score high with respect to social environments and relationships).

An optimal level of happiness may sound like a worthwhile goal, especially in relationships. But it may also be unnecessary in achievement-oriented environments.

Stop trying to reach the pinnacle of happiness in your job. Being moderately happy, the studies suggest, works just fine.

Source: The Optimal Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy? by Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener, and Richard E. Lucas