The Science of Happiness

Some people don’t like science. It is almost as if they are saying “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” One of my colleagues and friends at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., has written a book, “Authentic Happiness,” which addresses the question of what is known scientifically about happiness. Dr. Seligman, who is head of the American Psychological Association, is a relatively new devotee of “positive psychology” – a recent and vitally important new perspective in psychiatry and psychology. Positive psychology studies health instead of disease – it’s about time. Forty years ago I started a center at the University of Pennsylvania to study normalcy. I began to worry that it was a fallacy to study illness and then try to deduce what was healthy and normal. So when Seligman’s book came out, I got very excited.

One positive psychology study selected nuns. The beauty of studying nuns is that they tend to have the same diet, low rates of smoking and drinking, same reproductive and marital histories, live in the same economic and social class and largely have the same access to medical care. Since all these can potentially affect longevity, it makes for a good study. These particular nuns wrote essays at the time they were being induced into the order. Scientists judged these essays on how happy the nuns were who wrote them. They didn’t know the nuns and they certainly had no knowledge of what happened to them later in life. Ninety percent of the most cheerful quarter were alive at 85 compared to 34% of the least cheerful quarter. Fifty-four percent of the most cheerful quarter were alive at 94 compared to 11% of the least cheerful. That is a staggering difference. Another study of 2,282 people 65 and older were followed for two years. Happy people were half as likely to die during the study period. They also had better immune systems.

So what makes people happy? Space will not allow us to relate all the studies but a couple may shock you.

Money: There is no question that poverty causes lower happiness but above about $50,000 per year there appears to be almost no correlation between money and happiness. Further, to quote Dr. Seligman, “people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole.”

Health: We judge that good health is the key to happiness but again to quote Dr. Seligman’s book, “It turns out, however, that objective good health is barely related to happiness, what matters is our subjective perception of how healthy we are.” However, people with five or more illnesses do show a deterioration in happiness, so severe illness does decrease happiness.

Your feelings, even your good ones, are impacted by your past, present and future. The positive feelings about the future include optimism, hope, faith and trust. Those about the present include joy, ecstasy, calm and zest, ebullience, pleasure and flow. And emotions about the past include satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride and serenity. Have you learned to separate your feelings and think about their source? You can readily see that you probably can’t find joy solely by working on your past or future. It almost certainly isn’t located in that part of the mind and won’t result from digging in your childhood.

So much of modern psychological services are based on the concept that we are traumatized in childhood and that our current unhappiness or lack of happiness results from those early experiences. Further, according to this orthodoxy, emotions build up under pressure and if they are not released, physical and psychological symptoms result. Well-controlled studies where people are followed over time show us that major traumas of childhood such as parental death or divorce, physical illness, beating, neglect and sexual abuse could, according to Seligman, “have some influence on adult personality but only a barely detectable one. There is no justification in these studies for blaming adult depression, anxiety, bad marriage, drug use, sexual problems, unemployment, aggression against your children, alcoholism or anger on what happened to you as a child.”

As far as venting your anger, it works the opposite of what we have been taught. Says Seligman: “Dwelling on trespass and expression of anger produces more cardiac disease and more anger.”