January 25, 2013

Six Possible Secrets to Happiness, According to Science

Originally posted on io9.com on Jan 25, 2012
by Robert T. Gonzalez

Science has all the answers, right? Wrong. But it has a pretty good sense of things, a lot of the time*. So what does science have to say about the pursuit of happiness? A lot. Like, build-an-entire-industry-around-it, even-the-pseudo-scientific-stuff a lot.

So let's look at some of the more recent things science has had to say about happiness and how you can score some for yourself — including one tip that might actually work (and you won't even have to pay us to hear it).

1. Surround yourself with happy people
Or, at the very least, surround yourself with people who surround themselves with happy people. .... Also worth noting: the researchers found sadness to be nowhere near as "infectious" as happiness.

2. Master a skill
This one is kind of a tradeoff: a study published in a 2009 issue of the 100% real Journal of Happiness Studies found that people who dedicate themselves to mastering a skill or ability tend to experience more stress in the moment, but reported greater happiness and satisfaction on an hourly, daily, and longterm basis as a result of their investment....

3. Self-government is key
The same study that found mastering a skill could bolster overall, longterm happiness found that the minute-to-minute stresses of mastering a skill could be lessened by self-direction and a sense of fellowship. "Our results suggest that you can decrease the momentary stress associated with improving your skill or ability by ensuring you are also meeting the need for autonomy and connectedness," explains Howell. "For example, performing the activity alongside other people or making sure it is something you have chosen to do and is true to who you are."

4. Smile for once
Darwin laid it out for us all the way back in 1872: "The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it," he wrote....

5. Get therapy
First of all, a side note: if you think you might benefit from psychotherapy, but are too worried about what your friends and family will think, get over yourself and do it. Why? Because it works (especially if you find the form of therapy that's right for you)....

6. STOP IT. Stop trying to be happy.
If you take away one thing from this post, let this be it: to be happy, there's a decent chance you'll have to stop trying to be happy. Sorry to get all zen-master on you, but that's the way it is.

Nevermind the fact that measuring happiness is a lot like trying to weigh an idea in pounds and ounces. Yes, there are ways to gauge happiness, whether chemically or with a questionnaire, but when you get right down to it, "happiness" means different things to different people, and is one of the single most nebulous ideals in existence — and one of the biggest downsides to this truth is that setting a goal of happiness can actually backfire.

Some of the most important research on happiness to emerge in recent years stands in direct opposition to the cult of positivity typified by bullshit positive-thinking self-help books that place a lopsided emphasis on setting grand personal goals of happiness. In a review co-authored in 2011 by Yale psychologist June Gruber, researchers found that the pursuit of happiness can actually lead to negative outcomes — not because surrounding yourself with positive people, mastering a skill, smiling, getting therapy or practicing self-governance aren't conducive to happiness, in and of themselves, but because "when you're doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness," says Gruber.

So be the zen master. Stop trying to focus on becoming happier and just be. Surround yourself with people not to become happy, but to enjoy their company. Master a skill not to increase your happy feels, but to savor the process of becoming.

I especially like #6. If we are in the moment more, whether good or bad, we will be happier I believe.