When a study published last December in the British Medical Journal announced that happiness is contagious, it became a top news item throughout the U.S. media—alongside lead stories about the auto industry’s plea for a
$34 billion bailout, the Treasury Department’s plan to salvage the nation’s housing market, the Mumbai
police’s search for terrorists, and spiraling confrontations in the West Bank. An explosion of interest in happiness
has hit our collective consciousness—outnumbered though it may be by headlines on societal collapse. In a
variety of popular magazines—Time, Discover, Science Now, Smithsonian, Wired, Home, Christianity Today—and books of most genres—The Geography of Bliss, A History of Happiness, This Is Your Brain on Joy, Exploring Adolescent Happiness, The Joy of Retirement—happiness is telling a multifaceted story. Psychology Today reports that 4,000 books on the subject were published in 2008 as compared to 50 in 2000. Although there’s an element of commodification in this
trend (you can get a “sustainable happiness makeover” in just three months for $3,000), it’s also true that part of
what’s driving this phenomenon is scientific interest in the investigation, and the findings are news.
For most of its history, psychology has focused on our pathologies, making this shift to positive psychology
a refreshing change. It’s also a fertile field. “Between 1980 and 1985, only 2,125 articles were published on
happiness,” in academic publications, “compared with 10,553 on depression,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
By 2005, the number of articles on happiness had increased sixteen-fold.
What is meant by happiness, anyway? The ancient Greeks were guided by the term eudaimonia, which
translates to “human flourishing.” Eastern traditions, such as the philosophies of Buddhism and Yoga, speak
of happiness as the “cessation of suffering.” From these perspectives, what is sought in happiness is not
transient pleasure but rather a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment.
So, where can we find it? How do we get it?
“Happiness is a skill,” says the happiest man in the world, Matthieu Ricard. A Buddhist monk and close
associate of the Dalai Lama, Ricard was pronounced “happiest man in the world” when extensive neuro-imaging
of his brain at the University of Wisconsin registered the highest level ever recorded (off the scale) in the area of
the brain associated with positive emotions.
The science bears out Ricard’s understanding of happiness with its findings that 50 percent of our happiness
is genetic, 10 percent circumstantial, and 40 percent in our hands to skillfully cultivate. Studies have also
identified a variety of intentional activities that boost our well-being: nurturing social connections; expressing
gratitude; positive thinking; forgiveness; acts of kindness; living in the present as well as working to achieve
meaningful goals that put us in the flow; physical activities to nurture the body; mind training, or meditation (the
skill Ricard has mastered and recommends); and belief in a higher power or purpose.
Researchers have also observed something they’ve named “hedonic adaptation.” Human beings adapt to favorable changes; for example, getting married, more wealth, a better job, good health, and beautiful housing only temporarily boost happiness levels. The familiar example of this phenomenon is the lottery winner. Studies show that winners’
levels of happiness jump up when the money is first won but return to baseline less than a year later. Hedonic
adaptation often works the other way, as well. Although most people’s baseline levels of happiness drop when they experience a debilitating accident or illness, with time most people recover the baseline levels they had before the
Ed Diener, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois and one of the leading and earliest researchers on happiness, has a list of important things science has learned about “subjective well-being” (SWB, or happiness).
He notes, for example, the following:
•The components of SWB can be measured with some scientific validity.
•Temperament is an important predictor of a person’s SWB, but some conditions (such as unemployment or living in a poor nation) have long-lasting effects.
• Happiness correlates with desirable consequences, such as sociability, creativity, better marriages,
better work performance, stronger physical immunity,and resilience in the face of adversity.
• Some cultures have higher levels of happiness than other cultures. One reason seems to be that in some cultures happiness is valued more
• People in unstable and very poor societies avow lower levels of happiness.
• Most people are at least slightly happy, but everyone has up and down moods; no one is happy every moment. Even the happiest people sometimes get unhappy.
• Enduring happiness comes not from running the hedonic treadmill but from working for goals that are consistent with our cherished values.
In short, there seems to be no single key to happiness;a variety of factors are at play for us all…
“Happiness is not the absence of sadness”
The panel of scientists and experts at the Happiness Conference in San Francisco agreed with this assessment
of the relative place happiness holds among the full range of human emotions and values. “Happiness is not the absence
of sadness,” said David Spiegel, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University, whose award-winning work with cancer patients has shown the healing benefits of “feeling what is real” and actively coping
with distress. Bringing different areas of expertise, research, and experience to the discussion, the scientific panel, one by one, affirmed commonly held philosophical wisdom:
Accept suffering. Confidence is the result of understanding your emotions and knowing how to navigate through them. Happiness is a process, not a goal—a means, not an end. Prioritize for meaning, not happiness.
Expanding Beyond Self
A vital component to genuine, sustainable happiness that has not yet been widely addressed is our relationship
to the natural world.Frances E. Kuo, a cognitive and environmental psychologist at the University of Illinois, has been examining the impacts of green spaces on human functioning.
Her award-winning studies with women living in a housing project in Chicago’s inner city showed that those whose apartments gave them a view of a courtyard filled with trees and flowerbeds scored significantly higher on tests of attention and in surveys on handling life challenges.
A recent study led by cognitive psychologist Marc Berman of the University of Michigan further demonstrates the restorative effects of natural environments on our mental abilities. Research participants who walked in a park and later simply viewed photos of nature showed significant improvements in memory and attention tasks when compared with participants who instead walked downtown and later viewed photos of city life (Psychological Science, December
In Born to Be Good ,Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, explores nature’s
power to elicit the transformative effects of awe, another form of human happiness. He draws in part upon the inspirational
writings of naturalist John Muir, such as the following:
nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems as
transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it.”
The experience of awe gives us a sense of our rightful place in the natural world, as it moves us beyond self-interest to
an awareness of collective well-being.
The Idea of shared fate.
Extending our understanding of happiness beyond the individual to the collective is what is needed now. Cycles of destabilization throughout evolution create new demands on selection for survival, and our response to the many
crises we now face as individuals, societies, and a planet converge in the area of cooperative relationships and
Writing on the evolution of happiness, David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin,notes that, “Evolutionists have identified one of the key conditions that promote cooperation—shared fate.”
This is where research on happiness could now take us as we reckon with our global interdependence.
“Our circumstances are always tenuous,” says neurosurgeon James R. Doty, founder of Project Compassion
at Stanford University, “but an abiding concern for others mitigates powerfully against attitudes of hopelessness and
The project draws together neuroscientists, neuroeconomists, psychologists, scholars, and contemplative experts to develop an interdisciplinary research agenda that examines the neural, moral, and social bases for compassion and altruism. The goal is to bring compassion not only into the mainstream of scientific discourse but also into public life, as the research identifies secular tools to share with the public.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given Project Compassion the largest personal financial donation he has ever
given—but then, when it comes to finding happiness, it is the Dalai Lama who says,
it this way: “If you have a society of selfish people, combined one-to-one with altruistic people, theoretically the
altruists should be wiped out. But altruists can cooperate, which gives them a strong advantage.
That is the cause of hope.”