How to be happy (but not too much)

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By Dan Jones

It’s good for your health, it makes you smarter – and our brains are hard-wired for it. New Scientist counts our reasons to be cheerful

DOOM and gloom are the order of the day across most of the western world. Economies are faltering, the cost of living is going up and many people’s real income is falling. For some, unemployment is a reality now or in the near future. If the pursuit of happiness is supposed to be one of our goals, prospects appear bleak.

Take a closer look, and it isn’t that simple. In fact, economic hard times have little impact on how happy most people feel. Indeed, it would appear that we humans are built to experience happiness, and understanding why is helping us work out what enhances our feelings of well-being. It even points to ways we can adapt to cope with the hardships the recession may bring, and keep smiling whatever happens.

One thing that is clear is that once life’s basics are paid for, the power of money to bring happiness is limited. In fact, it can be positively harmful to our sense of well-being. Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liège, Belgium, and colleagues recently asked a group of people to taste a piece of chocolate in their laboratory. They found that the wealthier members of the group spent less time savouring the experience, and reported enjoying the chocolate less than the subjects who weren’t so well off. The same was also true of one group in a separate experiment. This time, half the people had been primed with images of money before they tasted the chocolate. These participants enjoyed the tasting less than a group who had not seen the images, suggesting that just the thought of money is enough to stem our enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 759).

So just what is it that makes us happy? Happiness can take the form of many different positive emotions (See “Happiness is…”), and some hints of what makes us happy may come from work that questions why these emotions first evolved. The answer isn’t as obvious as it is in the case of negative emotions. These are clearly beneficial in the rough and tumble of survival: anger readies us to fight an opponent, fear makes us run away from danger, and disgust steers us away from contaminated foods and other sources of infection. Although there is no shortage of evidence that feelings of pleasure – obtained by finding a tasty meal or a sexy mate, for example – are important in rewarding and consolidating beneficial behaviours, it is harder to explain how the more diffuse positive emotions such as awe, hope or gratitude evolved.

This troubled psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so she started looking for evolutionary benefits that pleasure might confer. “I thought there must be more to it than this,” she recalls.

Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory proposes that happiness and similar positive states of mind improve our cognitive capacities while we are in safe situations, allowing us to build resources around us for the long term. That’s in marked contrast to the effects of negative emotions like fear, which focus our attention so we can deal with short-term problems. “Positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture,” Fredrickson argues.

Positive feelings change the way our brains work, allowing us to take in more information

Since she proposed it in 1998 in the Review of General Psychology (vol 2, p 300), her theory has gathered a wealth of experimental support. Eye-tracking and brain-imaging experiments, for example, have revealed that positive moods increase and broaden the scope of visual attention, helping the brain gather more information.

A happy solution

Feeling good has also been shown to improve people’s creativity and ability to solve problems. In one experiment, subjects were shown a video of comedy bloopers to lighten their mood, before being presented with a practical problem involving a box of matches, a box of tacks and a candle. They were told to attach the candle to a pinboard in such a way that wax didn’t drip on the floor (the solution is to use the matchbox as a plinth for the candle). The experimenters found that people who had viewed the comedy clips were more likely to solve the problem than controls who saw a mathematics documentary intended to put them in a more neutral mood (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 52, p 1122).

Other experiments have found that a good mood improves people’s verbal reasoning skills (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 383). And various studies have shown that when people are in a good mood, their social skills improve: they become more gregarious and trusting of others, and deal more constructively with criticism.

These changes concern the “broaden” part of Fredrickson’s hypothesis. The “build” part predicts that we learn from the cognitive benefits of fleeting positive emotions, and so develop a more lasting positive state of mind. “As positive emotions compound, people actually change for the better,” she says.

Fredrickson found initial, though tentative, empirical support for this idea in 2001 with studies of the same group of healthy students before and after the 11 September attacks on the US. The subjects who reported more positive emotions before the attacks also had fewer depressive symptoms after the attacks. Looking more closely, she found that although they also felt the same kind of grief as their peers, these students coped by feeling positive emotions such as gratitude for the safety of their friends and awe at the bravery of firefighters rescuing survivors. Although not conclusive, the results supported the idea that cultivating a positive mindset in good times helps us learn mechanisms that enable us to feel better in bad times, which is in line with the broaden-and-build theory (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 84, p 365).

More recently, she trained a group of adults in a form of meditation that encouraged them to think positively about someone they loved, and then to extend those feelings to people they might not feel so close to. After seven weeks of practising the technique for a few minutes each day, the participants scored higher on a range of positive emotions – not just increased affection for their loved ones. Overall, the participants reported greater joy, hope, gratitude, pride, interest and awe. They also experienced better relationships with others. Importantly, these changes carried over to days on which the subjects didn’t meditate. These benefits depended on the amount of time people spent meditating, and, as the broaden and build theory would have predicted, they amplified as the study progressed, suggesting that the temporary positive experiences were building on one another and leading to more lasting changes in their brains (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 95, p 1045). Other studies using different forms of meditation – including “mindfulness”, which involves cultivating calm awareness of bodily sensations and thoughts – have also shown that they promote temporary positive emotions (Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol 35, p 331), though it’s not so clear whether these would build up over time to provide more lasting changes.

As philosophers have long pointed out, immediate pleasures and a positive mood are not to be confused with what the Greeks called eudaimonia, the deeper level of happiness associated with a flourishing and contented life. Yet Fredrickson’s work shows a clear connection between the two. “Positive emotions give us more tools to handle life’s ups and downs, and that’s what makes life more satisfying and us happier,” she says.

From this, you might conclude that the happier we are, the better we will be at tackling the tasks facing us – but that’s true only up to a point. Joe Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has shown that positive moods can make us more gullible, less able to develop persuasive arguments, and more likely to make careless decisions. This has led Robert Cummins of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, among others, to argue that there is an optimum level of life satisfaction – around 7 or 8 out of 10 on the standard scale – at which we flourish. And indeed, this is the average level of happiness found in the majority of western countries (see map), where most people live fairly comfortable, safe lives.

Cummins thinks that this happiness level may have been selected for during evolution. Numerous studies have found that our happiness is pre-programmed to a certain extent, with genetic differences accounting for about 50 per cent of the variation between people. If happiness is controlled by our genes, the idea that natural selection might have pushed the population as a whole towards a certain level of happiness would certainly be plausible. “As long as people can maintain a normal lifestyle, they will experience that level of happiness,” says Cummins.