What Brings Happiness?

In a previous column I explored the medical and scientific research on happiness. I supported the new and growing field of Positive Psychology, which starts with studying what creates health and happiness. All traditional psychology has started from illness and then assumed health and happiness is the absence of psychological disease. I will again rely heavily but not exclusively on the book “Authentic Happiness,” by Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, so you can give a great deal of credibility to what I present.

In review, I have written about studies that show that happiness predicts longevity: happy people tend to live longer, a lot longer. Also, earning more than $50,000 per year has almost no impact on happiness. Surprisingly, physical health, despite common wisdom, doesn’t seem to relate to long-term happiness unless we have five or more illnesses at the same time. Lastly, our childhoods have little impact on our level of happiness by the time we reach the Third Age. This is not to say that people don’t have negative feelings about their childhoods that can haunt them. Rather, people raised in the worst childhoods are no more likely to be unhappy than those raised in the best ones. I also mentioned that positive feelings are not just one feeling, but are made up of a mixture of feelings about the past, present and future.

Wow, if all the stereotypes of what brings happiness are not true, what, then, brings happiness?

There are two at least types of emotional systems we possess. To quote Seligman, “the negative emotion has evolved to help us in win-lose games. When we are in deadly competition, when it is eat or be eaten, fear and anxiety are our motivators and our guides. When we are struggling to avoid loss or to repel trespass, sadness and anger are our motivators and guides…. Positive emotions come from win-win games. When we are in a situation of cooperating, planting seeds, teaching and learning – joy, good cheer, contentment and happiness guide our actions.” Win/win games can result in what we call altruism, where our motivations include benefiting others. Biology, it seems, evolved in a way to help tribes of people care about and help each other. It gave them the positive feeling of happiness.

If positive emotions result from the cooperation, planting seeds, teaching and learning, it should not be surprising that certain virtues and strengths are much more likely to lead to happiness. This may speak to why people get a lump in their throats or tears in their eyes when they hear about the great kindness of one person to another? One study had psychology students try one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity during the week that followed a lecture and then keep a journal of what their experiences were for both. The philanthropic activities, one where people used their personal strengths to help other people, had an overwhelmingly positive impact on happiness, one that lasted far longer. It seems that we are wired biologically to be happy when we act as if we are connected to others.

To really understand happiness we need to make a distinction between pleasure and happiness. Pleasures are good feelings that have clear sensory and strong emotional components: ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth and physical comforts. The sensation of pleasure usually ceases soon after the stimulus to our senses ends. When the thrill of racing a car stops, the heart gradually slows and so does the pleasure. Gratification is not necessarily accompanied by any raw feeling at all. Rather, it comes when we are absorbed, using our gifts fully, perhaps doing it for the benefit of others. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pleasure. Pleasure is good for us within limits. There are many things such as savoring that people can learn to do to prolong and extend pleasure. These are well worth learning. But despite what this “me first,” materialistic, youth-oriented society advocates through advertising, pleasure alone will not bring us happiness.

Happiness requires the addition of the gratification: using our unique virtues and strengths for creative purposes or for the good of others or both. But what are these virtues? Scientists looked historically into the great religions to find a potential list and validated them internationally to find the ones that were universal. The list includes: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence. As we develop these virtues, we move toward greater gratification and greater happiness.

But there is also a mental discipline component to happiness. Studies show that gratitude, forgiveness and optimism and hope can be learned and have a power contribution to make both health and happiness. When we learn to stop dwelling on the ghosts of the past, forgive ourselves and others for all our hurts and inadequacies, and learn to be optimistic and hopeful about a future that includes our aging bodies, we move a long way toward true happiness.

These facts underlie the work we do at the Third Age Foundation. We have been teaching people how to have their energy rise as they age instead of decline. In order to do that, they have to develop psychologically and spiritually throughout their Third Age. It is wonderful to continue to find continuing professional and scientific support for what we are doing.