6 Secrets to Happiness (According to Science)
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Science has all the answers, right? Wrong. But it has a pretty good sense of things, a lot of the time. So what does science have to say about the pursuit of happiness? A lot. Like, build-an-entire-industry-around-it, even-the-pseudo-scientific-stuff a lot.
So let's look at some of the more recent things science has had to say about happiness and how you can score some for yourself — including one tip that might actually work (and you won't even have to pay us to hear it).
1. Surround yourself with happy people
Or, at the very least, surround yourself with people who surround themselves with happy people. A longitudinal investigation conducted over 20 years in collaboration with the Framingham Heart Study revealed that shifts in individual happiness can cascade through social networks like an emotional contagion. That's right, happiness is kind of like a disease. (The researchers don't mean Facebook, btw, but physical, old-school networks — like live-in friends, partners and spouses; and siblings, friends and neighbors who live close by.)
"Most important from our perspective is the recognition that people are embedded in social networks and that the health and wellbeing of one person affects the health and wellbeing of others," conclude the researchers, noting that the relationship between people's happiness was found to extend up to three degrees of separation (i.e. all the way to friends of friends of friends). "This fundamental fact of existence provides a fundamental conceptual justification for the specialty of public health. Human happiness is not merely the province of isolated individuals."
Also worth noting: the researchers found sadness to be nowhere near as "infectious" as happiness.
2. Master a skill
This one is kind of a tradeoff: a study published in a 2009 issue of the 100% real Journal of Happiness Studies found that people who dedicate themselves to mastering a skill or ability tend to experience more stress in the moment, but reported greater happiness and satisfaction on an hourly, daily, and longterm basis as a result of their investment.
"No pain, no gain is the rule when it comes to gaining happiness from increasing our competence at something," said Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University in a statement. "People often give up their goals because they are stressful, but we found that there is benefit at the end of the day from learning to do something well."
3. Self-government is key
The same study that found mastering a skill could bolster overall, longterm happiness found that the minute-to-minute stresses of mastering a skill could be lessened by self-direction and a sense of fellowship. "Our results suggest that you can decrease the momentary stress associated with improving your skill or ability by ensuring you are also meeting the need for autonomy and connectedness," explains Howell. "For example, performing the activity alongside other people or making sure it is something you have chosen to do and is true to who you are."
4. Smile for once
Darwin laid it out for us all the way back in 1872: "The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it," he wrote. And recent studies — involving botox, of all things — suggest he was onto something. SciAm's Melinda Wenner explains:
Psychologists at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people whose ability to frown is compromised by cosmetic botox injections are happier, on average, than people who can frown. The researchers administered an anxiety and depression questionnaire to 25 females, half of whom had received frown-inhibiting botox injections. The botox recipients reported feeling happier and less anxious in general; more important, they did not report feeling any more attractive, which suggests that the emotional effects were not driven by a psychological boost that could come from the treatment's cosmetic nature.