Positive thinking concepts date back to ancient times, but the field of positive psychology is relatively new.
Throughout much of modern history, psychology has been hyperfocused on flaws, frailties and failings of humans. Studies and experiments were conducted to examine how sadly broken we human beings are, and how we might possibly be repaired. Finally, that has changed!
A Brief History of the Science of Happiness
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In 1952 a minister named Norman Vincent Peale published his book The Power of Positive Thinking. Mental health experts were not impressed or accepting of his ideas, but in the general population his book became a huge bestseller.
That was only one of many books on self-development that became wildly popular and sold millions of copies. During the next few decades interest grew to the point that “self-help” became an enormous literary genre with a diverse range of subjects, everything from entrepreneurship to new age spirituality.
Then, in 1998, Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association. He is credited with raising awareness of the professional community on self-improvement issues. In his inaugural speech he said:
It’s my belief that since the end of the second world war, psychology has moved too far away from its original roots, which were to make the lives of all people more fulfilling and productive, and too much toward the important, but not all-important, area of curing mental illness.”
That opened the door to endless studies on what makes people happy, as well as related topics such as the effects of positive emotions. In 2009 Time Magazine published an article about the science of happiness and what was learned during the first 10 years of research. The field was new, the techniques previously untested, and unfortunately, some of the initial findings were oversimplified and didn’t hold up over time.
One example is an early study reporting that lottery winners are no more satisfied with their lives after they win than before. Later, these scientists discovered that while some lottery winners aren’t happy people, a poor person who wins the lottery is actually a little happier with his or her life.
Despite those early disappointments, or maybe because of them, more recent research is grounded in hard science. The consensus that money can’t buy happiness still holds, but with a caveat. Money can definitely make a difference to the desperately poor, but once basic needs are met or middle-class status is reached, additional money has little affect.
Happiness Research – What Scientists Can Tell Us Now
There are lots of preconceived notions about what “should” make us happy, but most of them are wrong.
According to Psychology Today, the results of scientific research tell us that our prosperity, health, and physical attractiveness don’t have much affect on our overall happiness.
In fact, it’s more likely to work the other way around:
- Happy people tend to be more prosperous, more generous, more creative, more productive, and less stressed out (or they’re better at coping with stress).
- Happy people are more likely to have good relationships in with the people in their lives.
- Happy people are less prone to get sick, and more prone to be healthy and live longer.
Perhaps most interesting is that health has so little effect. Shouldn’t anyone that’s in good physical health be pretty darn happy about that? Maybe, but scientists say that isn’t how it works. Poor health may make us feel less happy, but good health offers no benefit because when we’re healthy we don’t appreciate it or even think about it. We simply take it for granted.
What is it, then, that really does make us happy? The findings aren’t surprising:
The greatest influences on our happiness are character and attitude.
Never mind what’s happening outside of us. It’s what’s on the inside that makes all the difference. Life is full of ups and downs, victories and defeats, and thrilling experiences and big disappointments. Aside from extremes, as a rule people have quite a capacity for adapting to circumstances and major life events.
Some are much better than others at keeping a good attitude even in less that ideal times. That’s certainly a plus. However, what usually happens after a major life event, whether good or bad, is that we eventually return to our “normal” level of happiness. What is the norm? It’s different for every individual because it’s something we’re born with. It’s genetic, and it’s been dubbed our “set point” for being happy.
Your Happiness Set Point – Are You Doomed?
One widely held theory in today’s scientific community is that how happy we are is determined in part by genetics. Studies of identical twins suggest that some of us are born with a natural tendency to be happier than others. It’s called a “set point”. The theory is that regardless of the events in our lives that cause emotional highs or lows, we soon revert back to our own fixed set point for happiness.
If that sounds like we’re all just slaves of some maniacal gene, take heart. First of all, it means that when something makes us unhappy, that natural set point can work to help us recover. Secondly, most of us greatly underestimate how much we can control our own happiness through the choices we make.
One of today’s leaders in positive psychology is Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky. (For more about her see “What is Happiness?”). She says we absolutely can increase our happiness level, despite what our set point might be.
Just be aware that how we go about this can have some pitfalls. For instance, there are “happiness-boosting exercises” that are recommended for increasing your happy level. They include things like keeping a gratitude journal, writing down a daily list of blessings, or doing random acts of kindness for others.
Dr. Lyubomirsky is not against those practices by any means. She does, however, point out that there can be a downside because it’s the same as getting into any other kind of rut. What starts out bringing you joy can eventually become a daily chore. Not always, but in some cases, too much repetition can diminish the effect and defeat the purpose. Balance, it seems, is the key.
How Can YOU Benefit From the Science of Happiness?
Reading about results of studies is interesting, but even better is using these insights to improve your own life. How happy are you? Do you know what really makes you happy? Do you ever think you should be happy and wonder why you aren’t?
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has written two books that address all those issues and much more. She considers happiness to be the Holy Grail of life. Her goal is to help us understand that we do have the power to become happier, and that it’s one of the most vital and important things we can do for ourselves, as well as for those around us.
In this brief video, she explains some of the major benefits of being a happy person:
If you want to know more about changing your own capacity for happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s two books provide excellent “guides” that are a great place to start!
- The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want
- The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does
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