Posted: May 18, 2007 by Doc in Happiness, Medical career

“Happiness Map” Click to enlarge
(from Mind-mapping.co)
The Keys to Happiness, and Why We Don’t Use Them
By Robin Lloyd, Special to LiveScience

It requires some effort to achieve a happy outlook on life, and most people don’t make it.”
-Author and researcher Gregg Easterbrook

Psychologists have recently handed the keys to happiness to the public, but many people cling to gloomy ways out of habit, experts say.

Polls show Americans are no happier today than they were 50 years ago despite significant increases in prosperity, decreases in crime, cleaner air, larger living quarters and a better overall quality of life.

So what gives?

Happiness is 50 percent genetic, says University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken. What you do with the other half of the challenge depends largely on determination, psychologists agree. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

What works, and what doesn’t:

Happiness does not come via prescription drugs, although 10 percent of women 18 and older and 4 percent of men take antidepressants, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Anti-depressants benefit those with mental illness but are no happiness guarantee, researchers say.

Nor will money or prosperity buy happiness for many of us. Money that lifts people out of poverty increases happiness, but after that, the better paychecks stop paying off sense-of-well-being dividends, research shows.

One route to more happiness is called “flow,” an engrossing state that comes during creative or playful activity, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found. Athletes, musicians, writers, gamers, and religious adherents know the feeling. It comes less from what you’re doing than from how you do it.

Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California at Riverside has discovered that the road toward a more satisfying and meaningful life involves a recipe repeated in schools, churches and synagogues. Make lists of things for which you’re grateful in your life, practice random acts of kindness, forgive your enemies, notice life’s small pleasures, take care of your health, practice positive thinking, and invest time and energy into friendships and family.

The happiest people have strong friendships, says Ed Diener, a psychologist University of Illinois. Interestingly his research finds that most people are slightly to moderately happy, not unhappy.

On your own

Some Americans are reluctant to make these changes and remain unmotivated even though our freedom to pursue happiness is written into the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

Don’t count on the government, for now, Easterbrook says.

Our economy lacks the robustness to sustain policy changes that would bring about more happiness, like reorienting cities to minimize commute times.

The onus is on us.

“There are selfish reasons to behave in altruistic ways,” says Gregg Easterbrook, author of “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse” (Random House, 2004).

Research shows that people who are grateful, optimistic and forgiving have better experiences with their lives, more happiness, fewer strokes, and higher incomes,” according to Easterbrook. “If it makes world a better place at same time, this is a real bonus.”

Diener has collected specific details on this. People who positively evaluate their well-being on average have stronger immune systems, are better citizens at work, earn more income, have better marriages, are more sociable, and cope better with difficulties.

Unhappy by default

Lethargy holds many people back from doing the things that lead to happiness.

Easterbrook, also a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute, goes back to Freud, who theorized that unhappiness is a default condition because it takes less effort to be unhappy than to be happy.

“If you are looking for something to complain about, you are absolutely certain to find it,” Easterbrook told LiveScience. “It requires some effort to achieve a happy outlook on life, and most people don’t make it. Most people take the path of least resistance. Far too many people today don’t make the steps to make their life more fulfilling one.”

Link: Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness

The Happiest Man in the World

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

  1. idcrossroads says:

    This is quite an interesting subject. I agree that some people are just more “happy” by nature, they just have a more happy outlook on everything. Perhaps evolutionarily speaking, if everyone were happy with everything all the time, then no one would venture out to discover new things or new ways of doing things. Of course, there are those who whine and complain without doing a darn thing. So I think it’s a whole spectrum, and somewhere in there are the people who are dissatisfied enough to question the norm and bright enough to bring about change.

  2. docwhisperer says:

    Thanks for the comment, and congratulations on (just about) finishing your training. I think it’s a fallacy that only unhappy people are responsible for discovering things or acting as catalysts for change. There is a difference between personal happiness, which is what the post discusses, and satisfaction with your job, environment, or the status quo. You can certainly work for change without being a miserable human being. In fact, I bet the people who are actively involved in work that they’re passionate about are happier than those who are not.

    As someone with what used to be called a “dysthymic” tendency, my esperience is that when I was unhappy in my personal life, I was less focused in my work, more irritable with my coworkers, got less sleep, and got sick more often, all of which hindered whatever project I was working on.
    There is the debate about artists such as Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe who suffered from depression/ psychosis and whether their psychological problems contributed to their art. It may have, but there are just as many people with psych problems who don’t produce any masterpieces.
    The point of the article is that happiness doesn’t just happen, it is a choice, and a goal worthy of aspiration and effort.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    You might want to check out my blog on the placebo effect. Much of the placebo effect is mediated by nitric oxide, and is what switches physiology from the “fight or flight” state to the “rest and relaxation” state.

    I think a component of “happiness” must also be tied up with the relative “fight or flight” vs “rest and relaxation” state. I think that “depression”, is (in part) due to low ATP, and that some of the symptoms of depression are mechanisms to conserve ATP, (for example low physical activity). Compromised blood supply to the brain does cause depression (vascular depression).

    Brain activity and brain blood supply are tightly coupled, likely through nitric oxide which is what regulates vascular tone. Meditation has been shown to increase NO levels, and no doubt other types of mental activity do too.

    Stress produces low NO, NO is what causes mitochondria biogenesis, so chronic stress can cause a decline in mitochondria biogenesis, which necessitates more ATP per mitochondrion, which requires a higher mitochondrion potential, which results in more superoxide and less NO. If you get to the point where there are not enough mitochondria, it can be hard to get out of it.

  4. docwhisperer says:

    The post is not about depression, but about the pursuit of happiness in relatively psychologically stable and competent people.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    DW, I appreciate that, but some of the physiological mechanisms that lead to “depression” will, in subclinical form, lead to unhappiness. I have been clinically depressed, so I know the difference between being “depressed” and being “unhappy”. The steps you mention that foster happiness, also foster “low stress” and also foster high NO levels. (no I don’t have “proof” of this yet).

    The type of meditation that the Dalai Lama practices, raises NO levels, and I think that those increased NO levels are part of what maintains his mental state as a very happy man.


    The lifestyle that he lives and that he expouses should also raise NO levels.

    I think that a high stress lifestyle, one of competition, dishonesty, unfair dealings, distortion, hurting others, disrespecting others, holding grudges, hating others, is necessarily a low NO lifestyle, and will preclude “happiness”. It will also exacerbate all of the diseases exacerbated by “stress”, obesity, diabetes, CAD, ESRD, CHF, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, etc.

    If we contrast the life and practices of the Dalai Lama with those of Jerry Falwell, it is clear to me who is more spiritual and is more happy, and who has (had) fewer diseases associated with stress (all of which are low NO diseases). I think that some of it has to do with NO levels. A high NO level won’t guarentee happiness, but a low NO level may make it impossible.

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