The Science Of Happiness

From a scientist’s point of view, what is happiness?

Researchers think of happiness as having satisfaction and meaning in your life. It’s the propensity to feel positive emotions, the capacity to recover from negative emotions quickly, and holding a sense of purpose. Happiness is not having a lot of privilege or money. It’s not constant pleasure. It’s a broader thing: Our ability to connect with others, to have meaningful relationships, to have a community. Time and again—across decades of research and across all studies—people who say they’re happy have strong connections with community and with other people. That’s sort of the recipe for happiness.

Money doesn’t matter? Really?!

The assumption used to be, yes; more money will make people happier. But we actually have good data on that over the past 100 years. From the 1920s to the 1950s—an era of depression and world war—as household income rose there was an increase in people’s self-reported happiness. But then the line just tapered off. Studies show that money increases happiness when it takes people from a place where there are real threats—poverty—to a place that is reliably safe. After that, money doesn’t matter much. Research by the Nobel laureate psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman showed that money increases happiness until about $75,000 annually, and after that our emotional well-being doesn’t increase with income.

Why might that be?

Humans like to make things automatic. We quickly adapt and make all the everyday things in our lives automatic. The first time you drive a car, you’re very aware of your foot on the brake, of turning the wheel. But after a while, driving becomes automatic. That’s a great way to preserve our resources. We don’t want to devote all our brainpower to things we do every day, like driving or riding a bike. But that propensity for making things automatic can get in the way of happiness.

For example, say you really want a sports car (see infographic, above). You finally get one, and maybe you feel happy about it for a week or two. Then, on day 15, you get your new insurance premium and you’re angry about the rate increase. On day 400, it’s just a car—who cares any more? We get used to material things and to money; science shows they don’t make us happy in the long run.

What does make people happier?

When we ask people to assess how happy they are, and then look at what they do in their lives, we find that people who have strong social connections are happier. That’s number one.

Then we wonder, well, why? I’m a neuroscientist by training, and have spent my career trying to understand the biological systems that motivate us toward behaviors like cooperation, reconciliation. And, in fact, there are systems in the body that drive us to be more social. For example, the mesolimbic dopamine system linked to addiction also makes people feel pleasure when they give to others. If you measure hormones and activity in the body and the brain when people are being helpful or cooperating, you can see that pleasure happens. We’re hard-wired to be generous with others.

Bill Harbaugh, an economist at the University of Oregon, put volunteers in a functional MRI scanner (fMRI), and then told some volunteers they would sometimes give their earned money to charity, and other times keep it. When people were informed that they would be giving to charity, the areas of their brain associated with pleasure and reward lit up—just like they did when they got to keep it themselves. So the act of giving is pleasureable. Other fMRI studies have shown that the act of cooperating, of lending support to others, gives us pleasure.

In a recent paper in Current Opinion In Psycholgy, James Coan and David Sbarra describe the Social Baseline Theory. It suggests, based on years of social psychology and neuroscience research, that for humans, being alone is fundamentally harder than being together with others. According to their research, it simply requires more effort and resources to function in the world solo. Our bodies reflect this fundamental preference for company.

How much of our happiness is within our conscious control?

More than we once thought. Research on twins suggests that about 50 percent of the variance of happiness between two people has to do with our genes. Identical twins are more likely to have similar happiness scores than fraternal twins. That leaves a lot that’s not genetic. Research by Sonia Lyubomirsky, PhD, at UC Riverside suggests life circumstances—how privileged you are, whether you’re married, whether you have kids—accounts for about 10 percent of the variance in happiness. She attributes 40 percent—nearly half the variance—to our daily life experiences. The people you see, the activities you do, how you see your world each day.

Now, not all researchers agree with her model. But if it is right, then we have the capacity to change our own happiness. We can adopt a new perspective on other people that’s less fearful or competitive. We can engage in some sort of self-awareness practice like gratitude or prayer.

Can people learn to find the balance that makes them happy?

Yes, we think so. Our online class The Science of Happiness looks at the mental habits that research has identified as being harmful: perfectionism, maximizing—this idea that I have to get everything possible out of a given moment or I’m dissatisfied. And we present practical things people can do that research shows help people feel happy. We go over the research studies, and we actually teach the same interventions used in those studies. For example, we teach practical ways to cultivate mindfulness, gratitude, forgiveness, and kindness. These are activities that research has shown increase our sense of well-being and strengthen our connections with the people who matter in our lives.

Is there such a thing as trying too hard?

Perhaps. There’s evidence that people who strive to be happy may actually be less likely to feel happy. Psychologist Iris Mauss, PhD, at UC Berkeley has found that people who focus on the pursuit of happiness tend to focus on personal gains, and that can damage connections with other people. Research also suggests that people who experience intense amounts of positive emotion may be less creative during that time, and that too much positive emotion makes people inflexible when faced with new challenges.

So it’s not striving for happiness that matters. What matters is enabling yourself to have the experiences that we know make people happier. To spend time with someone who matters to you. To know that you are there for them when they need support, and they are there for you.