Make Room for Happiness

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Are happy people born that way? Or do they know something unhappy people don't? Experts have some answers -- and some strategies for happiness.

By Richard Trubo
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

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.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

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 organization."

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.

Originally published March 6, 2003.

Medically updated July 20, 2004.

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.

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