We first discovered in our research in the field of sports that happy athletes perform better and are healthier than unhappy athletes. In some ways, that may sound obvious, but not so obvious are the parallels we then drew between sports and personal relationships. We found the same relationship in high-performance or high-stress arenas outside of sport! Research has shown that the primary difference between frequently sick and rarely sick employees was their appraisal of troublesome situations. The frequently sick groups perceived more threats and more distress and unhappiness in their lives. Several studies, most notably, Robert Rose’s work at Boston University School of Medicine, have shown that employee health is powerfully linked to job satisfaction. The lower the morale and the more intense the dissatisfaction and unhappiness, the greater the probability of illness.
Which of the following would you most want as part of your life?
- Great Fame
- Great Wealth
- Great Happiness
- Great Pleasure
Did you know that most people will select #3, “Great Happiness”?
Dennis Wholey, author of the book Are You Happy?, estimates that only about 20 percent of Americans are happy. The most definitive work on the topic of happiness is David Myers’ book entitled In Pursuit of Happiness.
Here are some important understandings about happiness based on research studies in the last several years.
- Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in our overall happiness.
- Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in our overall happiness.
- Happiness depends less on what happens to us than on how we respond to what happens to us.
- Distressed, unhappy people are more vulnerable to disease than happy people are.
- Happiness is far more than the absence of pain or turmoil.
- Happy people are better performers, more creative, more energetic, more flexible, more responsive, and less defensive than unhappy people. Happy people are also more likely to extend a helping hand to others and can tolerate more pain and frustration than unhappy people.
- The relationship between wealth and happiness is very weak at best. The critical factor is not the income but how satisfied you are with the income. Happiness isn’t getting what you want but rather appreciating what you have.
- The impact of either traumatic or exhilarating events in people’s lives has but a temporary effect on happiness. External events, be they fortuitous or tragic, in and of themselves, rarely alter happiness levels over time.
- Older men and women report just as much happiness in life as do younger ones. Happiness is clearly not age dependent.
- Active, physically fit people tend to report significantly greater levels of happiness than sedentary, unfit people.
- Positive thinkers report more happiness and enjoy better health than do pessimists.
- Employees experience more happiness and job satisfaction the more involved they feel in decision making and the more control they perceive themselves as having.
- Close and meaningful relationships with friends and family are strongly linked to the perception of happiness.
- People with a strong spiritual commitment report significantly more happiness than those having little or no spiritual involvement.
Let’s take a look at what research can tell us about the traits of happy people. After years of intense study and review of all research conducted on personal happiness spanning over two decades, David Myers concluded there were five primary traits associated with happy people. The first was that happy people like themselves. Low self-esteem and low happiness tend to go together. The perception that you have of yourself strongly influences your perception of the world around you, as well as your perception of satisfaction in being part of the world.
The second trait of happy people Myers discovered was that they believe they are responsible for choosing their own destinies. In short, they feel a strong sense of personal control over the direction and fabric of their life.
The third trait is that happy people are hope-filled and optimistic. Take away hope for the future, and darkness and despair quickly follow. A positive, optimistic view of the world fuels hope, which in turn fuels the perception of personal happiness.
Myers’ fourth trait was that happy people are outgoing and engaged in the world. As a result, their connection to life is more intense, more vivid, and more connected to people. Their engagement in the world brings more friendships, more affection from others, and a strong social support system.
The final trait is that happy people have the ability to act themselves and to induce the feeling of happiness almost anywhere, anytime. Happy people have learned to summon the feeling of happiness much like an actor in Hollywood has learned to summon targeted feelings called for in a script. Happiness is an emotional feeling state not unlike sadness or fear. It has its own unique signature in the physiology. Learning how to think and act to control the feeling appears to be an important contribution in the happiness equation.
So what can we take from this research regarding happiness? It’s clear that life without happiness is empty. Happiness stands at the core of what is meant by a fulfilling life. Happiness is also critically linked to performance and personal health. So whatever we can do in our lives to strengthen feelings of happiness should pay great dividends. Here are some concrete guidelines:
- Stay active and physically fit throughout your lifetime.
- Be very careful how you think about what happens to you. How you think about what happens will be much more important than what actually happens.
- Extend a helping hand to others whenever you can. You get far more back than you will give.
- Resist looking to the past or future for happiness. Happiness is a “now” thing. Yearning for the good old days of yesterday or longing for fairy-tale dreams of tomorrow leaves the present vacant and empty.
- Work every day to strengthen a positive and optimistic view of the world. We clearly have to face reality, but we can do so optimistically.
- Devote time and energy to sustaining growing relationships with family and friends.
- Develop your spiritual side. Think bigger than yourself. Search for deeper meanings and explore life’s most powerful mysteries.
- Work every day to improve your self-esteem.
- Assume more responsibility for the direction of your life. Adapt a take-control attitude. No blaming, no excuses, no scapegoats. You and only you are the architect of your future.
- Stay engaged in the world. Don’t be fooled into believing that isolating yourself from the real world will bring happiness.
- Learn to summon the feeling of happiness anywhere. A walk in the park, a sunset, a child’s face, a beautiful piece of music. Become a better actor.
- Develop a strong social support system.
- Take responsibility for your own happiness. Make it a priority every day. Remember, many of the things that contribute to happiness are under your direct control.
Bottom line, nothing can bring you happiness. No one can make you happy. Happiness is inner, not outer. It is a state of being rather than a state of having. We make the tragic mistake of believing things external to us will bring the happiness we long for in our lives. John Powell described happiness as “An inside job.” He’s absolutely right.
Let’s now explore the issue of pleasure. Are pleasure and happiness synonymous? Clearly not. Pleasure is physical — of the body. Happiness is psychological — of the spirit.
There are several chemicals in the brain that have been correlated with the sensation of pleasure. The category that most often comes to mind is endorphin. Endorphins, along with some related compounds, are sometimes referred to as the body's morphine. In fact, the word endorphin means quite literally “endogenous morphine.” Beta-endorphin is probably one of the most powerful opioids and has even stronger addictive properties than does heroin. It's capable of inducing a strong feeling of happiness and is also able to reduce both physical and emotional pain. Beta-endorphin has also been implicated as being responsible for the pleasurable effects associated with listening to pleasant music and engaging in social activities.
Visual stimulation can be highly pleasurable and a powerful tool to alleviate some forms of depression. The further you live from the equator, the more likely you are to suffer from a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder or the “winter blues.” This occurs mostly during the months of January and February in the northern reaches of North America and Europe, and during July and August in southern New Zealand and Australia. The depression is triggered by decreased sunlight, which normally inhibits a chemical called melatonin. During the relatively short days of winter, brain levels of melatonin become abnormal. Numerous studies have shown that many people who suffer from this form of depression can benefit from exposure to full-spectrum lamps. That's all it takes to re-establish a normal biological rhythm. Exposure to light can also be a very pleasurable way of getting your body jump-started in the morning. This is especially a problem if you travel a lot and cross time zones.
Practically every chemical in your body fluctuates in a tidal-like pattern. There are millisecond bursts of activity at the level of the cell. Other chemicals change every 90 to 110 minutes. These are called ultradium rhythms. Some scientists believe that’s why at certain times of the day you can more easily perform certain jobs than at other times. For example, we know that the ability to perform certain tasks resides in specific brain areas. Language skills, for example, are dominant in the left hemisphere, while music awareness is in the right.
There's very good evidence that every 90 to 110 minutes you literally shift from one side to the other. The electrical activity on the left side of the brain will be more pronounced during certain parts of the day, but then at others it may be more dominant in the right hemisphere. Have you ever noticed that there are certain times of the day when you might be writing a report and the words just flow out of your pen. Then after a short break, you try to resume your task but can't even get motivated to pick up your pen. Or if you are artistically inclined, there may be times when the clay literally comes to life in your hands. But then after a brief break, it simply crumbles. It's because of the well-recognized localization of function and periodic switching from one brain hemisphere to the other.
The East Indians recognized this. They used to pay careful attention to their breathing pattern to determine whether it was the right time to go hunting. They recognized that certain skills were needed to be successful in this endeavor and that they were somehow correlated with breathing patterns. We now know that those breathing patterns are linked with the same processes that regulate switching from one hemisphere to another. Other rhythms are longer than 90 minutes.
Some chemicals change every 24 hours. That includes cortisol, which provides us with the energy to perform the tasks that we set for ourselves. It’s highest in the morning when we first get up and then begins to drop throughout the day. That’s one of the reasons you tend to feel a little more sluggish as the day drags on. In women there's a monthly reproductive cycle, and in men a seasonal reproductive cycle. The important point is that just about every one of these rhythms — the short-term as well as the long-term ones — are affected by light. So when you wake up in the morning feeling sluggish, go outside and take a walk. Expose yourself to natural sunlight. Walking around the block will energize you and, at the same time, light passes into your brain from the retina and will start turning on the chemicals that you need to feel aroused. It's very similar to flicking a light switch to brighten a room. These are examples of ambient light being beneficial.
Specific images can also be therapeutic. A team of scientists conducted an experiment in which they compared the recovery rates of patients who had a hospital room with a pleasant view, with those who did not. Those people whose rooms overlooked a park or some other pleasant setting had speedier recoveries compared with those people who had either no view at all or whose rooms simply overlooked a parking lot or an adjacent building. Of course, one could argue that a person who could afford a nice room in a hospital would also be able to afford a better-trained doctor and better-quality medical care. This was indeed a variable. It did account for some of the beneficial effects, but not all of them. Having a view was, by itself, therapeutic.
Another experiment was conducted by Judy Rodin at Yale University. She found that when people had plants in their hospital room, they too had speedier recoveries. It’s for good reason then, that many hospitals are now decorating rooms and hallways with pictures of beautiful scenes. As the healthcare delivery system switches from “fee for service” to managed care, there is more and more emphasis in getting people out of hospitals sooner.
Pleasant visual stimulation is the ticket to a speedier recovery. Imagine what visual stimulation would do if you weren't sick. If it can have those beneficial effects in the context of illness, imagine how beneficial it might be in preventing the illness from occurring in the first place. Environmentalize your home or workplace. Get rid of those things that trigger memories of bad experiences. Instead, put up pictures or display objects that remind you of pleasant occasions. Use this powerful tool to achieve a state of optimal health.
Anything that is capable of inducing pleasure is capable of serving as the target of addiction. Some people become addicted to foods. The same is true of certain animals. For example, if the first food that koalas eat when they come out of their mother’s pouch happens to contain eucalyptus oil, they can eat practically nothing else but eucalyptus for the rest of their lives. In contrast, the koalas born in captivity have many options at their disposal if given more varied foods.
Many people become addicted to sugar. This probably dates to the days of our early ancestors, who probably would have encountered sugar only in the forms of fruit or occasionally a honeycomb. Because sugar is a source of almost instant energy, one could argue that those individuals who had a taste for sugar would have been more likely to succeed in outrunning a saber-toothed tiger or emerging the victor in any type of encounter with an adversary. These people would pass on their genetic code to their offspring, and, if there is indeed a gene for sugar craving, that would be included. There are obvious health benefits of eating fruits that are sweet, so this may also have been a mechanism that nature evolved in order to increase the probability that on those occasions when a fruit was ripe for eating, we had the motivation to expend the additional effort in order to acquire it.
We have to realize, though, that these biological systems were put in place back in the Stone Age when a large amount of energy had to be expended in order to acquire the food and when resources were relatively limited. Today, we have almost unlimited sugar available to us, including highly refined forms. However, the same biological drives to seek it out are in place that evolved thousands of years ago. The problem is that in order for things to exert selective pressure, they have to kill us before we pass our reproductive prime. Eating refined sugar and, I might add, other unhealthy foods usually does not take a toll on a person’s health until we reach our later decades. Thus, there really is no mechanism whereby we will pass on healthy genes to our offspring.
It’s important that you be aware that there are very strong chemical forces within your brain making you seek out certain types of food that you do need in balance within your body. I’ve already mentioned those that motivate us to seek out carbohydrates. There are chemicals that cause us to seek out fat. For some people, it might be a Herculean feat in order to resist through behavior the temptations that are driven chemically. But do this; we must if we want to maintain a state of optimal health.
Here are four things you should start doing immediately to improve your emotional portfolio.
- Take a time-out. Any type of pause to break up a hectic day will help to let some of the pressure off. A brief period during which you simply close your eyes and repeat a favorite phrase or prayer will suffice.
- Be active. A study was conducted at the University of South Alabama using a group of inactive people who were enticed to begin walking or jogging three times each week for approximately 30 minutes. After just six weeks they were less anxious and more relaxed.
- Take control. Not everyone is in a position to be his or her own boss, but you can assume more control over everyday stressors. You might seek out more responsibility and become more involved in the process, whereby the work actually gets accomplished.
- Laugh. There is nothing more efficient to reduce blood pressure and relax muscles than having a good laugh. It may even stimulate endorphin release within the brain. At the very least, it's a brief diversion from the stressors in your life.