Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

Randy Taran of Palo Alto, California felt helpless as she faced her tearful teenaged daughter across the kitchen table. “I want to be happy,” her child said. “But I just don’t know how.” Taran didn’t know where to start. “If there was some curriculum on happiness, something I could have given her to read, I would have,” she remembers.

Epidemic of Unhappiness
A search for resource material on happiness turned up little, which Taran found disheartening, especially since she’d found some troubling statistics about the rise in depression among youth. Numerous studies suggested that a large percentage of today’s children feel overwhelmed, sad and hopeless. What is more, recent research from San Diego State University points to dramatic increases in anxiety and depression in children, adolescents and young adults over the last five decades. This means that today’s young people are more depressed and anxious than ever before – even more than children growing up during the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement of the 60s and early 70s.

Taran wanted to do something to help turn the tide. Using research gleaned from a newly emerging science called positive psychology, she founded an organization called Project Happiness (projecthappiness.com), whose mission was to develop educational programs for building emotional resilience. The Project Happiness curriculum, as well as Taran’s award-winning documentary film based upon it’s development (you can see the trailer on YouTube), is used today in middle schools and high schools throughout the world to aid young people in their quest for lasting happiness.

Focusing on Human Strength
What exactly is positive psychology? Unlike general psychology, which focuses upon our weaknesses – our anxieties and neuroses and depressions, and how to remedy them – positive psychology is all about our strengths and how we can build upon them to learn to be happier. Launched in 1998 by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, the movement has been growing rapidly in popularity. Back in 1999, there were few positive psychology courses; one at Harvard University gained the interest of only 20 undergraduate students. Today, there are more than 200 such courses taught on college campuses across the nation – and the University of Pennsylvania even offers a graduate degree in the field.

But positive psychology is not a self-help movement, says Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, former teacher of positive psychology at Harvard and author of the international bestseller, Being Happy. “What distinguishes positive psychology from the self-help movement is its reliance on research, on scientific evidence,” he says.

What the Research Says
What does the research say? Things like the fact that there are few external factors that can make us happy – not even money (or at least more money than we need to provide for our basic needs). One study done by Princeton researchers found that people whose income rose significantly became used to the extra money – so much so that they soon reported a need for more money. And the more they made, the more they wanted to make, and the harder they worked, which left them less leisure time – and produced more stress and unhappiness.

It seems that when it comes to happiness, your mother was right – it’s what you have inside of you that counts. “One of the misconceptions that we have,” says Micah Sadigh, PhD, professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “is that we think that situations or others can make us happy. As long as we think happiness can be externally generated, it will be short lived. Happiness is a choice, the choice we have in our response to life and to situations.”

The most important information that comes from the science of positive psychology is that happiness can be learned. This isn’t to say that everyone will meet with the same success in learning how to be happy though, says Ben-Shahar. “There is some genetic component to our happiness (some people are born with a happy disposition while others are not), but our genes define a range, not a set point. ‘Grumpy’ may not be able to cultivate the same view of life that ‘Happy’ enjoys, and a natural-born whiner may not be able to transform himself into a Pollyanna, but we all can become significantly happier. Through our choices we have a great deal of control over how happy or unhappy we are.”

Ready to start making better choices for lasting happiness? Here are seven helpful tips from the happiness professionals to guide you:

1. Give yourself permission to be human, says Ben-Shahar. “When we accept emotions, such as fear, sadness or anxiety, as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness. When we accept our feelings – when we give ourselves the permission to be human and experience painful emotions – we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.”

2. Engage in meaningful activity. “Those who have a sense of meaning tend to be happier,” says Sadigh. “They also cope better when unfortunate circumstances occur,” he adds. Meaningful activity can be anything that gives you a sense of purpose, such as joining a playgroup with your child or volunteering at the animal shelter. For many people, making a commitment to something or someone – even a pet – brings meaning to life and shifts attention onto another being.

3. Choose your mindset. Do you view a low grade on a test or a reprimand from the boss as a failure, or an opportunity to learn and grow? Instead of thinking of yourself as a dummy or blaming the teacher or the boss, you might tell yourself that you’ll study harder next time, or make more effort to be more productive at work.

4. Look for your strengths and build upon them. Everyone has some positive qualities or things they do well, says Taran. Maybe you’re good at making people laugh, or at teaching things to others. “If you don’t know what your strengths are, ask someone,” she suggests. “Once you’ve identified them, think about how often you use them, and try to use them more.” Why not volunteer to be a clown at the school carnival, or tutor a student? Using your strengths, says Taran, makes you feel more competent, which generates happiness.

5. Remember the mind/body connection. How you treat your body affects your mind, too. Hitting the gym four or five times a week, getting seven to eight hours of ZZZs each night, and loading up on healthy fruits and veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy products is good for both your physical – and your mental – health.

6. Practice gratitude. “Gratitude is a pillar of happiness,” says Taran. “Each day before you go to bed, think of three things you’re grateful for, large or small. Even something like a good workout or a conversation with a friend. This will help you to develop the habit of gratitude.”

7. Surround yourself with love. Research shows that people who have meaningful relationships with others rather than isolating themselves are happier, says Ben-Shahar. “The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate the time you spend together.”

Just how do scientists measure happiness? This can be a big challenge, because happiness means different things to different people – at different times in their lives. While there are dozens of ways of measuring happiness, these are the most common:

*Life Satisfaction Survey: While people may define happiness differently, if they say they are happy, they probably are. Life satisfaction surveys ask people to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1-7 or 1-10.

*Observation: You know it when you see it: a genuine smile. People who are happy smile more, and the smile reaches their eyes, making the facial muscles crinkle.

*Physical Measurements: Remember mood rings? They turned color with the temperature of your hands, revealing your emotions. In addition to skin temperature, brain waves, heart beat, blood pressure, even hormone levels can be indicators of a happy state of mind.

Intrigued? Learn more, and take one of several happiness tests yourself on Dr. Martin Seligman’s website, AuthenticHappiness.com. Dr. Seligman is the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.