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6 Secrets to Happiness (According to Science)

What does science have to say about the pursuit of happiness?
 
 
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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 investigationconducted 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.

"It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn't just restricted to our brain-there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we're having," says Michael Lewis, a co-author of the study. "It's like a feedback loop."

Either that, or botulism-to-the-face is like a shot of good feels? Let's just chalk this one up to smiling. Note that this is different from harboring feel-good happy-thoughts (more on that below).

5. Get therapy
First of all, a side note: if you think you might benefit from psychotherapy, but are too worried about what your friends and family will think, get over yourself and do it. Why? Because it works (especially if you find the form of therapy that's right for you).

Anyway: in an interesting twist on the age-old question of whether money makes people happy, psychologist Chris Boyce compared the cost-effectiveness of psychological therapy versus monetary compensation following instances of psychological distress. His findings, which were actually published in an economics journal, found therapy to be 32 times more cost effective at increasing happiness than cold, hard cash.

"Often the importance of money for improving our well-being and bringing greater happiness is vastly over-valued in our societies," notes Boyce. "The benefits of having good mental health, on the other hand, are often not fully appreciated and people do not realize the powerful effect that psychological therapy… can have on improving our well-being."

6. STOP IT. Stop trying to be happy.
If you take away one thing from this post, let this be it: to be happy, there's a decent chance you'll have to stop trying to be happy. Sorry to get all zen-master on you, but that's the way it is.

Nevermind the fact that measuring happiness is a lot like trying to weigh an idea in pounds and ounces. Yes, there are ways to gauge happiness, whether chemically or with a questionnaire, but when you get right down to it, "happiness" means different things to different people, and is one of the single most nebulous ideals in existence — and one of the biggest downsides to this truth is that setting a goal of happiness can actually backfire.

Some of the most important research on happiness to emerge in recent years stands in direct opposition to the cult of positivity typified by bullshit positive-thinking self-help books that place a lopsided emphasis on setting grand personal goals of happiness. In a review co-authored in 2011 by Yale psychologist June Gruber, researchers found that the pursuit of happiness can actually lead to negative outcomes — not because surrounding yourself with positive people, mastering a skill, smiling, getting therapy or practicing self-governance aren't conducive to happiness, in and of themselves, but because "when you're doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness," says Gruber.

So be the zen master. Stop trying to focus on becoming happier and just be. Surround yourself with people not to become happy, but to enjoy their company. Master a skill not to increase your happy feels, but to savor the process of becoming.

 

Robert T. Gonzalez is a science writer for io9, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future.

 
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