The Benefits of Happiness

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"People in America spend more time, emotional energy, and money in the quest for contentment than any nation on earth. The systematic packaging and selling of happiness is an industry estimated to be worth more than $10 billion", according to Ruth Whippman author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Causing A Nation of Wrecks.

Americans spend the majority of their time and money striving to achieve happiness, without ever knowing what "being happy" means. Every person you ask will have a different answer as to what happy means to them. One might say "a stress-free life", another "a life of fun and freedom", yet another "success and financial wealth". And each of those answers is right… and wrong at the same time.

Happiness is a subjective experience, and what it means, and how to get it, differs from person to person. Psychology World says happiness refers "to a person's enjoyment or satisfaction, which may last just a few moments or extend over the period of a lifetime. Happiness does not have to be expressed in order to be enjoyed - it is an internalized experience, varying in degrees, from mild satisfaction to wild euphoria. Psychologists often refer to happiness as positive affect - a mood or emotional state which is brought about by generally positive thoughts and feelings. Positive affect contrasts with low moods and negativity, a state of mind described as negative affect in which people take a pessimistic view of their achievements, life situation and future prospects." I prefer the definition Sonja Lyubomirsky shares in her book The How of Happiness, "the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."

Would you describe yourself as a happy person? If you said "no" you are not alone, according to a recent Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness only 33% of Americans are happy, which means that there are over 216 million unhappy people in our nation, and that number keeps growing. This could explain why the U.S. has never cracked the top 10 happiest countries in the world since the first World Happiness Report came out in 2012, in fact in 2018 we placed just 18th out of 156 countries ranked, sitting just between Luxembourg and the United Kingdom.

Yet achieving the state of happiness is the underlying motivation of every goal an individual sets, every achievement they strive for, and every change that is embraced. Happiness is such a fundamental goal for our nation and its citizens that we even include it in our founding documents. The U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men "are endowed, by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

In our nation we view happiness as an "unalienable right". Happiness is not a privilege, not a bonus, it is a priori truth. Maybe our founding fathers knew then, what studies show now, that there are immense benefits to happiness beyond the joy of the individual.

Happiness Benefits:

Happy people live longer. A 15-year longitudinal study into the happiness of elderly people, known as the Arnhem Elderly Study, found higher levels of happiness in those who lived longer. A recent study on Health.com found "Older people were up to 35% less likely to die during the five-year study if they reported feeling happy, excited, and content on a typical day. And this was true even though the researchers took factors such as chronic health problems, depression, and financial security out of the equation."

Happy people are healthier. A study published in Neurobiology of Aging found that happy people have lower ambulatory heart rates and systolic blood pressure. In addition, happy people are less likely to catch a cold when exposed to viruses. "We found that people who regularly experience positive emotions, when exposed to rhinovirus, are relatively protected from developing illness," said Dr. Sheldon Cohen, lead author of a study following happiness and illness, and a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dr. Neil Schulman, associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and author of Doc Hollywood says happiness is " like a drug that is released by your state of mind and simply changing the state of mind can produce effects on the rest of the body through the nervous system and hormones. Your chance of developing the common cold, pneumonia, or even cancer may very well be decreased by keeping your brain in a healthy state."

Happy people are less stressed and anxious. The same study in Neurobiology of Aging found that happy people had lower levels of cortisol and reduced fibrinogen stress responses, both indicative of lower stress, as well as an indicator that happiness helps us better handle stress. Barbara Fredrickson, the queen of Positive Psychology and author of Positivity, says happiness can quell or undo the negative aftereffects of stress, anxiety, depression, or negativity in general. She calls this the "undo effect".

Happy people work better. According to Shawn Achor, the author of The Happy Secret to Better Work happy people are 31% more productive at work. He also states happy people are 40% more likely to receive a promotion, are 10 times more engaged at work, and have a 37% higher sales rate than their non-happy counterparts.

Happy people are more successful. Not surprisingly given the above stats happy people tend to be more successful and earn more money. Psychologyworld.com shared that "research suggests that there may be a causal link between positive affect and success - that success not only brings happiness, but that a person who is happy has a higher chance of achieving success than somebody experiencing negative affect". Shawn Achor says "When we are happy — when our mindset and mood are positive — we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it."

Happy people are primed to be more successful, make more money, have better health, live longer lives, have longer and stronger marriages, and are better at coping with the stress life throws at them. Not to mention they are just more fun to be around. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars helping our children get excellent educations that will serve as a foundation of their lives so they will be successful. We spend billions of dollars annually to look and feel younger. We spend endless dollars and hours buying and reading books that will tell us the secret to a successful life. We try to achieve success to create happiness, but maybe the answer is to flip that concept upside down. Achieve happiness, and the success will follow.

Resources and Additional Information

Achor, Shawn. Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change.

Achor, Shawn. Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being

Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Cohen, Jamie. Happy People More Immune to the Common Cold. ABC.com.

Frederickson, Barbara. Positivity.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness.

MacMillan, Amanda. Happiness Leads to Longer Life. Health.com.

Psychologist World, The Psychology of Happiness.

Salzgeber, Nils. The Happy Life Formula.

Steptoe, Andres & Wardle, Jane. Positive Affect and Biological Function in Everyday Life. Neurobiology of Aging, Volume 26, Issue1, Supplement.

Whippman, Ruth. America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Causing A Nation of Wrecks.

Whippman, Ruth. Americans Are Spending a Fortune on Finding Happiness – And Becoming Less Happy in the Process. QZ.com.

Sometimes, just making the attempt is the goal!
 

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Wednesday, 22 May 2019