The Science of Happiness (Incl. 7 Best Videos + Podcast)

Understanding the science of happiness
Photo by DzeeShah on Pixabay

With the rise of positive psychology, there has been an ever-increasing focus on the good things in life: compassion, forgiveness, joy, elevation, success, thriving, and well-being – and, of course, happiness.

What used to be the realm of entertainment magazines and self-help gurus is now an established and expanding corner of the scientific literature. Now, instead of focusing only on depression, anxiety, and other more negative aspects of life (all completely worthy of attention and research, of course), scholars are asking big questions about the positive things in life.

Read on to learn more about those questions and get a glimpse at findings from the research aimed at answering them, along with some excellent resources for further information.

 

A Look at the Science of Happiness

So what is the “science of happiness?

This is one of those times when something is exactly what it sounds like – it’s all about the science behinds what happiness is and how to experience it, what happy people do differently, and what we can do to feel happier.

This focus on happiness is new to the field of psychology; for many decades – basically since the foundation of psychology as a science in the mid- to late-1800s – the focus was on the less pleasant in life. The field focused on pathology, on the worst-scenario cases, on what can go wrong in our lives.

Although there was some attention paid to well-being, success, and high functioning, the vast majority of funding and research was dedicated to those who were struggling the most: those with severe mental illness, mental disorders, or those who have survived trauma and tragedy.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing what we can to raise up those who are struggling, there was an unfortunate lack of knowledge about what we can do to bring us all up to a higher level of functioning and happiness.

Positive psychology changed all of that. Suddenly, there was space at the table for a focus on the positive in life, for “what thoughts, actions, and behaviors make us more productive at work, happier in our relationships, and more fulfilled at the end of the day” (Happify Daily, n.d.).

The science of happiness has opened our eyes to a plethora of new findings about the sunny side of life.

Current Research and Studies

For instance, we have learned a lot about what happiness is and what drives us.

Recent studies have shown us that:

  • Money can only buy happiness up to about $75,000 – after that, it has no significant effect on our emotional well-being (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010).
  • Most of our happiness is not determined by our genetics, but by our experiences and our day-to-day lives (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
  • Trying too hard to find happiness often has the opposite effect and can lead us to be overly selfish (Mauss et al., 2012).
  • Pursuing happiness through social means (e.g., spending more time with family and friends) is more likely to be effective than other methods (Rohrer, Richter, Brümmer, Wagner, & Schmukle, 2018).
  • The pursuit of happiness is one place where we should consider ditching the SMART goals; it may be more effective to pursue “vague” happiness goals than more specific ones (Rodas, Ahluwalia, & Olson, 2018).
  • Happiness makes us better citizens – it is a good predictor of civic engagement in the transition to adulthood (Fang, Galambos, Johnson, & Krahn, 2018).
  • Happiness leads to career success, and it doesn’t have to be “natural” happiness – researchers found that “experimentally enhancing” positive emotions also contributed to improved outcomes at work (Walsh, Boehm, & Lyubomirsky, 2018).
  • There is a linear relationship between religious involvement and happiness. Higher worship service attendance is correlated with more commitment to faith, and commitment to faith is related to greater compassion. Those more compassionate individuals are more likely to provide emotional support to others, and those who provide emotional support to others are more likely to be happy (Krause, Ironson, & Hill, 2018). It’s a long road, but a direct one!

 

The Science Behind Gratitude and Happiness

The science is clear on gratitude and happiness: they are intricately linked.

Studies show that it’s likely a two-way street, in that those who practice gratitude on a regular basis are more likely to report high levels of happiness, and those who are happy are more likely to feel high levels of gratitude.

One of the most well-known studies on gratitude and happiness is that conducted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough in the early days of positive psychology. They divided participants into three groups:

  • The first was instructed to write a few sentences a week about all the things they were grateful for that had occurred in that week.
  • The second was instructed to write a few sentences a week about the things that bothered or stressed them out during that week.
  • The third was instructed to write a few sentences about events that had an impact on them over the past week (with no mention of “good” or “bad” events).

 

The study lasted for ten weeks, and at the end, the researchers measured the optimism and well-being of their study participants. Those who wrote about things they were grateful for were more optimistic, enjoyed higher well-being, and even exercised more and had fewer trips to the doctor than those who wrote about their daily annoyances and irritations (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

These findings affirmed what many of us already intuited: that actively looking for the good things that happen to us makes us happier people. This concept has been embraced and incorporated into many positive psychology interventions for good reason – because it really works!

 

The Scientific Research on Happiness at Work

There’s been a ton of research on the effects of happiness in the workplace. Much of this is driven by companies who want to find a way to improve productivity, attract new talent, and get a dose of good publicity, all at the same time. After all, who wouldn’t want to do business with and/or work for a company full of happy employees?

Although the jury is still out on exactly how happy employees “should” be for maximum productivity, efficiency, and health, we have learned a few things about the effects of a happy workforce:

  • People who are happy with their jobs are less likely to leave their jobs, less likely to be absent, and less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors at work.
  • People who are happy with their jobs are more likely to engage in behavior that contributes to a happy and productive organization, more likely to be physically healthy, and more likely to be mentally healthy.
  • Happiness and job performance are related—and the relationship likely works in both directions (e.g., happy people do a better job and people who do a good job are more likely to be happy).
  • Unit- or team-level happiness is also linked to positive outcomes, including higher customer satisfaction, profit, productivity, employee turnover, and a safer work environment.
  • In general, a happier organization is a more productive and successful organization (Fisher, 2010).

 

To sum up the findings we have so far, it’s easy to see that happiness at work does matter – for individuals, for teams, and for organizations overall. We don’t have all the answers about exactly how the relationship between happiness and productivity works, but we know that there is a relationship there.

Lately, many human resources managers, executives, and other organizational leaders have decided that knowing there’s a relationship is good enough evidence to establish happiness-boosting practices at work, which means that we have a lot of opportunities to see the impact of greater happiness at work in the future!

 

17 Interesting Facts and Findings

Smelling flowers happiness
Photo via Pexels

Research in this field is booming, and new findings are coming out all the time. Here are a few of the most interesting facts and findings so far:

  1. Happiness is linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as healthier heart rate variability.
  2. Happiness can also act as a barrier between you and germs – happier people are less likely to get sick.
  3. People who are happier enjoy greater protection against stress and release less of the stress hormone cortisol.
  4. Happy people tend to experience fewer aches and pains, including dizziness, muscle strain, and heartburn.
  5. Happiness acts as a protective factor against disease and disability (in general, of course).
  6. Those who are happiest tend to live significantly longer than those who are not.
  7. Happiness boosts our immune system, which can help us fight and fend off the common cold.
  8. Happy people tend to make others happier as well, and vice versa – those who do good, feel good!
  9. A portion of our happiness is determined by our genetics (but there’s still plenty of room for attitude adjustments and happiness-boosting exercises!).
  10. Smelling floral scents like roses can make us happier.
  11. Those who are paid by the hour may be happier than those on salary (however, these findings are limited, so take them with a grain of salt!).
  12. Relationships are much more conducive to a happy life than money.
  13. Happier people tend to wear bright colors; it’s not certain which way the relationship works, but it can’t hurt to throw on some brighter hues once in a while—just in case!
  14. Happiness can help people cope with arthritis and chronic pain better.
  15. Being outdoors – especially near the water – can make us happier.
  16. The holidays can be a stressful time, even for the happiest among us – an estimated 44% of women and 31% of men get the “holiday blues.”
  17. Happiness is contagious! When we spend time around happy people, we’re likely to get a boost of happiness as well (Florentine, 2016; Newman, 2015).

 

Here is the source for the first six facts and findings, as well as for the latter 11.

 

What are the 36 Questions?

The 36 questions were developed by researchers Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vallone, & Bator in 1997. These three sets of questions offer a surprisingly effective way to get to know someone and improve your connection. As we know from findings in the science of happiness, human connection is one of the most vital ingredients in a happy and healthy life.

Some even say these 36 questions can encourage love to blossom! If you want to give it a shot and boost the quality of your connection with someone, print these questions out and walk through them together. It should take about 45 minutes to get through all of them.

Set I

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

 

Set II

  1. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  2. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  4. What do you value most in a friendship?
  5. What is your most treasured memory?
  6. What is your most terrible memory?
  7. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to you?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  10. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

 

Set III

  1. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…”
  2. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
  3. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  4. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  5. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  7. Tell your partner something that you like about them [already].
  8. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  9. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  10. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  11. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  12. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

 

You can view these questions and some tips for putting them to practice from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

 

Yale Professor Laurie Santos’s Online Course

If you have the time and the inclination to check out an online course on the topic, this resource is an excellent one.

It’s called “The Science of Well-Being” and it’s offered by Yale Professor and positive psychologist Laurie Santos. It aims to give students a comprehensive overview of the field, but also provide them with the tools and guidance they need to put what they learn into practice to create a happier, healthier life for themselves.

Here’s what you need to know about the course if you’re considering taking it:

  • It’s 100% online.
  • It offers flexible deadlines to work with your schedule.
  • It takes about 19 hours to complete.
  • It’s offered in English, with subtitles available in English and Spanish.
  • It’s free! (But you’ll have to pay a fee if you want the certificate)

 

The syllabus outlines what the course will cover each week:

  1. Introduction
  2. Misconceptions About Happiness
  3. Why Our Expectations are so Bad
  4. How Can We Overcome Our Biases?
  5. Stuff that Really Makes Us Happy
  6. Putting Strategies into Practice
  7. Start Your Final Rewirement Challenge
  8. Continue Your Rewirement Challenge (Part 1)
  9. Continue Your Rewirement Challenge (Part 2)
  10. Submit Your Final Assignment

 

Here is access to this highly-rated course.

 

The NYU Science of Happiness Course

New York University also offers a course on the science of happiness, taught by positive psychologist Dan Lerner and Dr. Alan Schlechter. This course is intended to help students learn about mental health and wellness of college students “on a personal and systems level.”

According to the syllabus, the class “seeks to reunite the current mission to cure mental illness with the exploration of how to foster more fulfilling and productive lives, and the understanding and the development of high potential.

The course is divided into a few main topic areas:

  • The Basics of Well-Being
  • Change
  • Tools for Change
  • From Positive Potential to Positive Excellence

 

Here is the syllabus for this highly rated course.

 

The Science of Happiness edX Course by UC Berkley (MOOC)

Finally, another popular course on the science of happiness comes from the University of California, Berkeley. This massive, open online course (MOOC) is free to take and offers students “practical strategies for tapping into and nurturing their own happiness, including trying several research-backed activities that foster social and emotional well-being, and exploring how their own happiness changes along the way.”

Things to know about this course:

  • It’s taught by positive psychology experts Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
  • It’s an 8-week course.
  • It requires about 4 to 5 hours of study per week.
  • It’s free to take (but $49 for a verified certificate).
  • It’s offered only in English at this time.

 

Enroll in this course or learn more about it from edX.

If you’re more interested in the science of happiness specifically in the workplace, Berkeley’s Science of Happiness at Work program offers three other courses you might enjoy. Here’s what you need to know about this program:

  • These courses are also taught by Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
  • It’s composed of three 4-week courses.
  • Each course requires 2 to 3 hours of study per week.
  • The courses include:
  • It’s offered only in English at this time.

 

Check out the Science of Happiness at Work program.

 

The Science of Happiness Podcast

Another great way to learn about the science of happiness is the appropriately named podcast, “The Science of Happiness” from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. The description of this series is short and sweet, but covers the bases pretty well: “Research-based tips for a meaningful life.”

To get an idea of the kinds of episodes they produce, here’s a sample of some of their latest work:

  • The Power of Expressing Your Deepest Emotions (December 20th, 2018)
    • “He started Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban rock band when he was 18 years old.”
  • Being Kinder to Yourself (December 6th, 2018)
    • “When you’re helping others cope with stress and anxiety, how do you deal with your own?”
  • How to Connect with Your Body (November 26th, 2018)
    • “International megastar Daniel Wu tries a practice that brings him calm amidst the chaos.”
  • How to Deal with Uncertainty (October 18th, 2018)
    • “How do you respond when you feel threatened or defensive?”

 

This podcast series is hosted by Dacher Keltner, a well-known professor of psychology and a contributor to the field of positive psychology. You might recognize his name from the Science of Happiness course above since he also teaches the massively popular online course.

Check out the podcast.

 

The Surprising Science of Happiness TED Talk by Dan Gilbert

This TED Talk introduced many people to the science of happiness and helped popularize some of the most pervasive and widely shared ideas about happiness. These ideas include:

  • Lottery winners and paraplegics generally report similar levels of happiness one year after winning the lotto/losing their legs.
  • This is because humans are excellent at adapting to changes in their situation; most events don’t change your long-term happiness much!
  • We all have the ability to create “synthetic happiness,” a form of happiness we make when we are forced to because we didn’t get what we wanted.
  • A good portion of our happiness is dependent on our thoughts rather than what happens to us.

 

View Dan Gilbert’s talk or see the transcript of his talk.

 

The Soulpancake Series

Soulpancake is a media organization and according to them, they’re “the world’s most recognized positive and inspiring media and entertainment company” that promotes information, research, and tips and techniques on how to live a better life. On their website, they write:

“We create content, across various platforms, that explores life’s most significant questions, celebrates humanity, and champions creativity. And we do it with integrity, heart, and humor.”

Their science of happiness documentary series offers an exploration of some important questions:

  • What really makes us happy?
  • How is happiness sustainable?
  • Can we actually make ourselves happier?

 

You can learn more about it or access their YouTube channel.

 

Other Recommended YouTube and TED Talk Videos

If you still want more, you’re in luck! There are tons of good YouTube videos and TED Talks out there on the subject. Here’s just a sample:

The Science of Happiness at Work from the Greater Good Science Center

 

The Happy Secret to Better Work TEDTalk by Shawn Achor

 

An Experiment in Gratitude – The Science of Happiness from SoulPancake

 

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness – Talk from Tal Ben-Shahar from WGBHForum

 

How to be Happy – The Science of Happiness and Feeling Positive in Life from Memorize Academy

 

The Science of Happiness: What Makes You Happy? from the Greater Good Science Center

 

Prof. Dan Gilbert – The Science of Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You from PresidentialConf

 

 

The New Science of Happiness Time Article

This article from Claudia Wallis at Time Magazine is a classic read, and one that helped spark mainstream interest in positive psychology. It outlines the birth of the field, describes some of the key players and gives a short summary of some of the key findings in the science of happiness up to 2005.

 

12 Books to Read

If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the science of happiness, look no further than this list of 12 of the most popular and well-received books on happiness and positive psychology:

  • A Primer in Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson (Amazon)
  • Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths by Alan Carr (Amazon)
  • Quantum Jumps: An Extraordinary Science of Happiness and Prosperity by Cynthia Sue Larson (Amazon)
  • When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness by Tim Bono (Amazon)
  • Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle (Amazon)
  • Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing by William C. Compton and Edward Hoffman (Amazon)
  • NeuroWisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness, and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning (Amazon)
  • Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson (Amazon)
  • The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life by The Editors of TIME (Amazon)
  • The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success by Emma Seppla (Amazon)
  • The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Eric Swanson and Yongey Rinpoche Mingyur (Amazon)
  • Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness by Ilona Boniwell (Amazon)

 

A Take-Home Message

The message I hope you take home from this piece is that there’s so much we’ve learned about happiness – but there’s also so much more to be learned! Keep an eye out for the ever-expanding corner of psychology that is focused on happiness and the good things in life, because this is where some of the most exciting and impactful work is being done.

What are your thoughts about the science of happiness? Do you find the results to be representative of your own life? Do you find them to be applicable to your situation? Let us know in the comments section!

Thanks for reading, I hope you find success in applying the science of happiness in making a healthier and happier life for yourself!

 

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  • Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377
  • Fang, S., Galambos, N. L., Johnson, M. D., & Krahn, H. J. (2018). Happiness is the way: Paths to civic engagement between young adulthood and midlife. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 42, 425-433. doi:10.1177/0165025417711056
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  • Humphrey, J. (2018). The science of happiness, in four simple work habits. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/40554865/the-science-of-happiness-in-four-simple-work-habits
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  • Krause, N., Ironson, G., & Hill, P. (2018). Religious involvement and happiness: Assessing the mediating role of compassion and helping others. Journal of Social Psychology, 158, 256-270. doi:10.1080/00224545.2017.1331992
  • Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111
  • Mauss, I. B., Savino, N. S., Anderson, C. L., Weisbuch, M., Tamir, M., & Laudenslager, M. L. (2012). The pursuit of happiness can be lonely. Emotion, 12, 908-912. doi:10.1037/a0025299
  • Mejia, Z. (2018). Harvard’s longest study of adult life reveals how you can be happier and more successful. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/20/this-harvard-study-reveals-how-you-can-be-happier-and-more-successful.html
  • Newman, K. (2015). Six ways happiness is good for your health. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_ways_happiness_is_good_for_your_health
  • Rodas, M. A., Ahluwalia, R., & Olson, N. J. (2018). A path to more enduring happiness: Take a detour from specific emotional goals. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 28, 673-681. doi:10.1002/jcpy.1042
  • Rohrer, J. M., Richter, D., Brümmer, M., Wagner, G. G., & Schmukle, S. C. (2018). Successfully striving for happiness: Socially engaged pursuits predict increases in life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 29, 1291-1298. doi:10.1177/0956797618761660
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  • Walsh, L. C., Boehm, J. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2018). Does happiness promote career success? Revisiting the evidence. Journal of Career Assessment, 26, 199-219. doi:10.1177/1069072717751441

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.

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