Have you ever zoned out in class only to be pulled back to attention by an interesting study or counter-intuitive fact?
|The Science of Happiness
|Ed Diener, PhD, University of Illinois (IL)
Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD, Noba
|View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.
• People learned about the nervous system by sending electricity through dead frogs.
• People scared of being on a high bridge thought a stranger was unusually attractive.
• Researchers called participants “assholes” in one study.
There is no denying that, despite the occasional dull lecture, psychology is packed full of fascinating information. The most obvious reason for this, perhaps, is the fact that it deals with concepts and phenomena that are so fundamentally human. Unlike the study of molds or of light refraction, topics such as love, anxiety, cooperation, and language are easy to relate to.
It is for exactly this reason—the direct relevance of psychological science—that courses in this field are more than educational tools; they are also potential self-development tools. It is difficult to complete a course on moral development without reflecting on your own moral reasoning. It is tough to avoid categorizing yourself while taking a course on personality. Each topic in the psychological curriculum offers an opportunity for improved self-understanding.
The Personality Puzzle
In our experience, students find the topic of personality especially easy to apply to their lives. One reason for its attractiveness is that personality is—to some degree—about categorization. Categories work as psychological shorthand that allow us to make educated guesses based on only a bit of information. If people are extroverts, for example, you might guess that they will be chatty. If they are high on neuroticism, on the other hand, then they are likely prone to worry. Knowing people’s general leanings, or traits, can be helpful in interacting with them more successfully because you know what feelings and behaviors you are likely to expect from them. This same logic applies to understanding your own traits: knowing that you have certain tendencies toward worry, or rule following, or sociability can help you predict your own feelings and behavior.
One topic related to personality that can aid self-understanding is happiness. That might surprise you. Most people think of happiness as an emotional pot of gold at the end of life’s rainbow. That is, if you get a good job, marry the right person, and enjoy cool recreation, you will end up being happy. Despite this commonsense belief, happiness is related to personality. Happy people are low in neuroticism and have predictable ways of thinking. For example, happy people are likely to savor successes while their unhappy counterparts are more likely to pick apart successes.
Although the study of subjective well-being (the academic term for happiness) is only decades old, courses on positive psychology are becoming increasingly popular. Similarly, happiness is cropping up as a legitimate topic in textbooks. In the 1990s, many personality and introductory psychology texts had no mention of happiness in their indices. Fast forward to today and many, if not most, popular textbooks in Introductory Psychology and Personality Psychology courses contain multiple index listings on happiness. Personality courses these days are similarly attending to emotional stability, hedonic adaptation, trait happiness, and similar happiness-related topics.
This popularity is mirrored in other areas of society where happiness is gaining ground as a serious topic of study. To date, two happiness researchers have won the Nobel Prize in Economics and city, state, and national governments are adopting well-being alongside economic measures to gauge progress.
In the last four decades, research has yielded some important—and occasionally surprising—findings concerning happiness. Here, we offer three that we hope will not simply be informative, but also potentially personally useful.
Three Lessons About Happiness
Let’s begin with the counter-intuitive question of “what happiness leads to.” For millennia, scholars have been primarily concerned with how to get happiness. Only recently have scholars turned that approach on its ear and asked, “Once a person experiences frequent happiness, what does that lead to?” It turns out that happiness doesn’t just feel good, it is good for you. Researchers have identified a number of benefits of being happy. First among these is a boost in health. Happier people have better immune systems and are less likely to catch colds, suffer from heart disease, or engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking or drinking to excess. Happiness also appears to make people more sociable and exploratory. Happier people volunteer more and are more likely to help others at work. Speaking of work, happier people get better customer evaluations, are less likely to quit their jobs, and make significantly more money than do their less rosy counterparts.
Next, it is important to understand the fundamental nature of happiness. It is a process, not a place. It is here, perhaps, that happiness is most easily seen as associated with personality traits. Happiness is a collection of pleasant feelings and sense of satisfaction that comes frequently but not every second of the day. Even the happiest people occasionally dip into frustration, sadness, and worry. This can be an important lesson because it can be a reminder that no one is “emotionally perfect.” Fortunately, humans have a natural thermostat that regulates our happiness temperature. When we experience a success—such as our favorite sports team winning the championship—we experience a brief high but then adjust back to our baseline levels of mild pleasantness. This same process occurs when we experience inevitable setbacks: an expensive speeding ticket might wreck your afternoon but before long you return back to your baseline happiness.
Finally, we must address the million dollar question, “how can you get happiness?” Many people have argued that happiness is the ultimate motivation of all people. We make decisions large and small with the idea of happiness in mind: should I take a morning class? Should I buy a used car? Should I eat this dessert? Should I say “yes”?
It will probably not surprise you to learn that there is no simple, reliable formula for achieving happiness. Certainly some self-help books and popular gurus will try to convince you that if only you make one change you will be guaranteed happiness. But, remember that pesky thermostat that protects us from being stuck in a negative mood? It also keeps us from having a smile plastered permanently on our faces. This means that achieving happiness is about putting in on-going effort much in the same way that staying in shape requires regular exercise.
Happiness researchers have tested several simple exercises that seem to show fairly good return on investment, where happiness is concerned. One of these is to invest in others. In one study of the most and least happy college students, the single factor that separated the two groups was having close friends. Good social relationships appear to be more important to happiness than money, occupation, intelligence, and a variety of other variables. From a practical perspective, investing in others means celebrating their successes with them, spending time engaged in enjoyable pursuits with them, offering compassion when the time arises, and working through occasional conflict. It’s what you might think of as being a good friend.
Similarly, you can adopt the cognitive habits of happy people. Folks with a sunnier disposition appear to have certain thinking habits that help buoy their moods. For instance, they are likely to take the time to savor successes. This doesn’t mean they go around bragging; it means that they take mental snapshots of positive events so that they can remember them in detail later. They also appear to default to gratitude. It is easy for the happiest people to be appreciative because they take the time to revel in their fortune. When was the last time that you counted yourself lucky for having a working toaster, a caring sibling, laws that protect you, access to green spaces, or your health? This is exactly the type of mental tallying in which the happiest people engage.
Although happiness is an interesting topic, it might feel far away from your academic career. More often than not, happiness is associated with frivolity, pleasure, and joy. School, on the other hand, is linked to effort, challenge, and stress. How can these two be combined? Here are several points that might help you:
Happiness is not permanent. It may be helpful to remember that even the happiest people are only in a good mood about 80% of the time. It’s okay to occasionally feel confused, bored, fearful, or other negative states. In fact, working through moments of confusion and boredom is tied directly to the learning process.
Happiness is worthwhile. You don’t need to treat your education as a hardship to be endured until something better appears in the future. It is helpful to take at least some time for pleasure and enjoyment because these experiences can translate to better health, more optimism, and more sociability. Making friends, enjoying recreation, using the gym, and learning interesting information can all be fun.
You can be happier with your education. It is tempting to complain about education because there is a ton to complain about: unfair tests, difficult schedules, boring instructors, and high prices. Without turning a blind eye to these difficulties, you can also focus on all that goes well: new learning, making friends, recreational opportunities, and rising to a challenge successfully.
Develop your personality. Personality traits such as extroversion, neuroticism, and openness are guidelines that influence thoughts and behavior. They are not, however, completely unchangeable. Viewing some qualities such as intelligence as potentials that can be developed instead of fixed traits, can be advantageous.
Noba—an open education resource for students and instructors of psychology—is awarding $5,000 for student-made videos. Psi Chi affiliated students are invited to submit high-quality 3-minute videos on the theme of “personality traits” (broadly defined), inspired by information from the Noba module on—you guessed it—personality traits. You can read the free module at http://nobaproject.com/modules/personality-traits and learn about the video award at http://nobaproject.com/student-video-award.
Ed Diener, PhD, is Emeritus professor at the University of Illinois and is professor of psychology at both University of Virginia and University of Utah. He was editor of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology from 1998-2003 and was founding editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Dr. Diener has published 350 publications, of which 250 are on happiness. He received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association and the William James Fellow Award for outstanding contributions to scientific psychology from the Association of Psychological Science.
Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD, is a subjective well-being researcher with more than 50 publications. His studies focus on groups typically overlooked by researchers including tribal people and sex workers. Dr. Biswas-Diener is also senior editor of Noba, an open education resource for psychology. Under his leadership Noba provides more than 2 million dollars annually in saving to students of psychology.
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Copyright 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the
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