Are happy people born that way? Or do they know something unhappy people
don't? Experts have some answers -- and some strategies for happiness.
If anyone can tell you something about life after death, it might be Dan
Baker. When his infant son, Ryan, died from a lung disorder, Baker felt
so emotionally crippled he was inconsolable. He was sinking in the
quicksand of his own despair.
"I felt overwhelmed with grief," recalls Baker, PhD, now a
medical psychologist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. "I wanted to
wrestle with God and rewrite history."
But after a lengthy healing process, Baker emerged from that grief
eventually to find a renewed life and a sense of an enduring legacy of
love for his son. Today, he is a leading authority on a rather unlikely
subject - happiness.
"Happy people are hugely resilient on the whole," says Baker,
who personally knows a lot about resilience and has written a book
titled What Happy People Know. "One thing happy people know is that
they don't get to be happy all the time. They can appreciate the
moments, the little victories, the small miracles, and the relationships
with one another."
Nature or Nurture?
The Declaration of Independence describes one of our inalienable rights
as "the pursuit of happiness." But for millions of people,
happiness has remained rather elusive. They've tried to buy happiness.
They've tried to force it. They've sought it through pleasurable
activities. But nothing has seemed to work for them.
Researchers now believe that our brains are hard-wired in ways that, at
least to some degree, determine just how happy we're going to be. In
short, it's in the genes.
At the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of
Wisconsin, scientists have used advanced imaging technology to pinpoint
the area of the brain -- specifically, the left prefrontal cortex --
that serves as the center for positive, optimistic, and happy feelings.
When people naturally have higher than normal activity in this brain
region, they are more likely to feel positive moods, and they'll tend to
start each day ready to take on the world.
As powerful as these genetic predispositions may be, happiness is still
partly within your control, says David Myers, PhD, the John Dirk Werkman
Professor of Psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich. "It's
rather like our cholesterol level -- genetically influenced, yet also
influenced by our habits and attitudes."
To help bring more happiness into your own life, here are some
strategies to try:
Nurture your relationships. Maintaining healthy love relationships and
friendships can be a challenge. But those challenges, and the emotional
development that inevitably come with them, can promote happiness.
Join the "movement" movement. Studies show that aerobic
exercise is an antidote for mild depression and anxiety. "Happy
minds reside in sound bodies," says Myers.
Act happy. A recent study at Wake Forest University showed that when
people simply acted extroverted, they felt happier than when they acted
introverted. Even introverts, said the researchers, can act extroverted
and feel happier.
Nurture your spiritual side. Faith not only provides valuable support,
but it's a way to focus on something other than yourself. "Study
after study finds that actively religious people are happier, and that
they cope better with crises," says Myers.
According to Ken Sheldon, PhD, associate professor in the department of
psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, all of us
are born with a particular "set range" for happiness, which
can be fine-tuned by various life circumstances. Your goal, he explains,
should be to reach and remain in the upper end of the happiness range
that is part of your genetic blueprint.
"All of life is a process of becoming," says Myers, author of
The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils,
"From womb to tomb, we're developing. So we can, at any time,
reshape our future."
Happy individuals have certain personal traits that set them apart from
people with clouds hovering over their heads. Sheldon's research has
shown that happiness is associated with characteristics like autonomy,
competence, close relationships, and high self-esteem.
Of course, some people are true believers that the quickest path to
happiness is to buy it or to mold it by transforming their personal
surroundings. They may have convinced themselves that if they buy a new
Lexus SUV or move to a beach community in California, lasting happiness
will follow. But Sheldon warns that while these kinds of changes might
work for a while, new possessions or fresh living arrangements will
eventually become part of your status quo and
their power to deliver happiness will fade.
"The route to sustained happiness is not to change the static
circumstances of your life, but rather to change the activities that
you're involved in," says Sheldon. "This could mean committing
to a new vocational plan, pursuing a new set of goals, or joining a new
Happy Days Are Here Again!
Although current concerns of the times -- such as terrorism, war, and a
weak economy can shake the foundations that support personal happiness,
these unsettling events have prompted some people to rethink their lives
and move in more positive directions. "After 9/11, many people
became much clearer about what was important to them, and what gave them
purpose in life" says Baker. "They also became more adaptive,
and more appreciative of the little things. Even in difficult times,
people can find happiness."
One way to steer your life toward happiness is simply to count your
blessings, and perhaps even create and make regular entries in your own
"gratitude journal." Myers points to research showing that
people who pause each day to reflect on the positive aspects of their
lives (for example, their health, friends, family, education, freedom)
are more likely to experience heightened well-being.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of
Massachusetts, conducted a study comparing the well-being of lottery
winners versus people who had become suddenly paralyzed. Following the
initial euphoria of their newfound wealth, the lottery winners were no
happier than the accident victims. The paralyzed individuals had to
adjust to the shock of their new physical limitations, but after this
early distress had eased, they were much better able to
appreciate the small pleasures and victories of life than those who were
overnight millionaires, and they felt more optimistic about the future.
SOURCES: Dan Baker, PhD, medical psychologist, Canyon Ranch, Tucson,
Ariz. David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Holland, Mich.
Ken Sheldon, associate professor of psychology, University of
Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, Missouri.