The Psychology of Happiness Part 1: Being Happy
We all want to be happy. Let’s face it, it’s better than being miserable. However, in terms of psychology, the focus over the years has definitely been on the side of “curing” mental illness – depression, psychosis, addictions – have been better understood than the reasons behind cheerfulness and wellbeing. We understand the nature of development, genetics, biochemistry and psychological causes of poor mental health, so how about good mental health? After all, we don’t lie awake at night wondering how to be less miserable – we ponder the ways we can be more happy, to have more meaning in our lives.
We’re not striving to be less miserable – we want to be happier.
Over the last few years, the same scientific based research that looks at poor mental wellbeing has been used to identify the causes and ways to develop better mental wellbeing (that’s happiness to you and me). A study published in 2013 linked happiness with living longer.
Three researchers, Deborah Danner, David Snowdon and Wallace Friesen were looking at longevity and Alzheimers. They had access to the writings of young nuns from the 1930s and 40s. At the time they were starting out as nuns these women were asked to write a 2-3 page autobiography. The researchers found that the autobiographies contained a high level of emotional content they used to quantify the happiness level of the nun writing the autobiography. The nuns made excellent test subjects due to:
- They live similar lifestyles, don’t smoke or drink alcohol, don’t have sex, get married or have children and they eat the same simple diet
- There was a high number of writings available (180 autobiographies were used)
- Their findings from the writings could be judged against the 60 – 70 year life of each nun after they had written their autobiography
- Knowing the outcome of life for all the subjects in the study.
Firstly, the researchers coded all the autobiographies. They counted the number of positive, negative, and neutral-emotion words and sentences in their stories. This gave the researchers the ability to group the nuns according to their expressions of happiness in their writing which the researchers assumed reflected their personality. The nuns were grouped into 4 categories from the most cheerful group (Quartile 4) to the least cheerful (Quartile 1).
Taking this information, the researchers were able to look at the longevity and mortality of the nuns. The results they found were:
- For every 1% increase in the number of positive sentences in their writings, there was a 1.4% decrease in mortality rate;
- The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least happy nuns;
- By age 80, the most cheerful group had only lost 25% of its population while the least cheerful group had lost 60%;
- Cheerful nuns had an 80% chance of getting to age 85 while the least cheerful nuns only had a 54% chance of reaching 85;
- By age 90 the cheerful sisters survived 65% of the time while the least cheerful sisters only survived 30%; and
- 54% of the happy nuns reached 94 while only 15% of the least happy nuns reached that age.
So, knowing that there is a link between happiness and living longer, who wouldn’t want to be happy?
The pursuit of happiness is the one thing that we all have in common. We will not always agree with the methods or morality of other people’s search for happiness. However, even when another person’s action is totally unacceptable to us, we cannot deny that in their own way they are pursuing their own happiness. This is not a moral argument about what is right or wrong. Just an acknowledgement that everyone seeks to be happy, even if it is in a way we neither comprehend nor condone.
Dr Tal Ben-Shahar is a psychology professor at Harvard University. His class on the psychology of happiness has the most students of any subject in any university in the US. He talks of five ingredients to happiness. They are all things that we can do to increase happiness in our own lives. In the next part of The Psychology of Happiness we will look at “Being Human”