Happiness: Has it Become a Science or is it a Question of Luck?
By Gabriella Kortsch
Are we born more prone to be happy or sad? Is it a question of genes? Does our environment make a difference? Our socio-economic status, the level of our intelligence, our emotional satisfaction, or the state of our physical health? Or could it be that we can decide how happy or unhappy we are?
Happiness and Our Bodies
According to recent psychological research, people who show the highest results in tests of happiness, optimism and contentment
- Develop about 50% more anti-bodies than average when subjected to flu vaccines
- Have a reduced risk of cardio-vascular disease
- Show a lower index of pulmonary disease
- Show a lower incidence of diabetes
- Have less hypertension than individuals who are less content
- And as indicated in a 2004 study carried out in Holland, further reduced their risk of death by 50% over a period of nine years
Clearly, the neurochemistry of happiness, in other words, how the brain looks and reacts if you are happy, has a great deal to say about your physical health and even the length of your life.
Plasticity of the Brain & Adult Neurogenesis
Neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly plastic, meaning that depending on the type of experiences it undergoes, it is capable of rewiring itself. Depending on an individual's activities - both physical and intellectual - the brain can grow new connections or dendrites between cells - and has recently been proven to be capable of adult neurogenesis, or new cell growth after adulthood, contrary to all prior research - and thus to become more active, even in old age. Even negative experiences can be beneficial, according to Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience. Therefore, not only can the brain reach higher levels of happiness, but - as Davidson published in 2004 - it can deliberately induce a state of happiness.
Are Depression and Happiness Emotional States Beyond Our Control?
Most people believe that depression and happiness are emotional states beyond their control. Breakthrough data - happily - shows otherwise.
The New York Times and Time Magazine have been publishing fascinating research on what is being called the new science of happiness. The American Psychological Association has been receiving and bestowing grants in order to study the elusive mystery of what does and does not make people satisfied with life.
What Makes Us Happy?
So let's cut to the chase: what exactly makes us happy according to the latest research?
Wealth? Once our basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise one's sense of satisfaction with life.
Good Education or High IQ? Much as they are assets to have in a lifetime, neither does much to raise one's sense of satisfaction with life either.
Youth? Not this one either. In actual fact, research indicates that older people are more typically satisfied with their lives than the young, and the young have been found to be sad more frequently than the older populations.
How About Marriage? Here research indicates that by and large married individuals are generally happier than singles, but this may be caused by the fact that they were happier to begin with.
Sunshine? Further studies show us that this also is not what makes us happy.
How About Religious Faith or Spirituality? In this case research demonstrates that religious faith or spirituality truly does appear to lift our spirits, although it is not conclusive whether this is due to the spiritual part or the community part that spiritual and religious practice imply.
What About Friends? A 2002 study clearly indicates that friends belong to the strongest contributing factors to happiness. Thus it becomes clear that close connections to friends, family and community, as well as a desire to spending quality time with them, highly influences an individual's state of happiness. More recently, in October 2006, Daniel Goleman's article in the New York Times addresses the biology of emotional healing. He refers to "emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed" and the possibility that this further explains why family and friends contribute to our happiness and not only emotional, but also physical well-being.
Most Important Components of Happiness
Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, has demonstrated through his research that there are three components of happiness:
- Pleasure: what makes me feel good.
- Engagement: how deeply I am involved with my family, work, romance and hobbies.
- Meaning: using my personal strengths to serve some greater purpose.
How Can We Become Happier?
One of the most compelling issues in happiness research is how much our happiness is under our own control. Do we influence it, is it due to genetics, or is it pure luck? Specifically, what can we do to become happier?
- Keeping a Gratitude Journal. Amazingly, the most important component to maintaining and/or raising our level of happiness is accomplished by keeping a gratitude journal. By writing down - on a daily basis - five things we are grateful for (the blue sky, the fresh smell of a baby's skin, a delicious cup of latte, having beautiful eyes, being capable of thinking on one's feet, etc.), physical health is improved, energy levels are raised, even pain and fatigue can be relieved.
- Performing acts of altruism and kindness gives a significant boost to test subjects.
- Figuring out your strengths and finding new ways to use them.
- Having or developing a capacity for love and kindness is another factor that raises levels of happiness, hence it is in your own interest that you consciously work on these aspects of your personality.
- You can consciously work on changing your DNA.
- Water crystals and the body's molecules show similar results as the above indicated DNA research.
- Emotional-energetic barometer.
- Using mind-body observation leads to greater consciousness and awareness of the self which leads to a greater capacity to use the information you are receiving in your own benefit and in raising your levels of happiness.
Is Happiness Luck or is it up to us?
So, going back to our original question, contained within the title of this article: has happiness become a science, or is it a question of luck, we are now definitively in a position to say, that while it has become more and more the focus of much concentrated academic and scientific research, more than ever, happiness is in the hands of the individual, in your hands, depending on what you do, how you think, how you react, and above all, how conscious and aware you are of yourself in those moments when you feel less than happy and when you could actually begin to change that and make yourself rise to another level of feeling.
The knowledge that your happiness is in your hands, that you have choices to make, is the beginning of a new way of looking at your well-being, and how you go about your days and your life. In it, as in all other aspects of becoming conscious and aware, lies freedom.
About Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D.
Dr. Kortsch holds a doctorate in psychology and dedicates herself to integral coaching, clinical hypnotherapy, relationship coaching, and energy techniques. She is an author and professional speaker and broadcasts a live weekly radio show in English that is available on the Internet or for listening on her website, and has appeared in numerous television programs in English and Spanish. She can help you move towards greater personal and relationship success with her integral approach to life and offers training and workshops in the field of self-development and choosing responsibility for the self.