Rethinking happiness

A documentary “Rethinking Happiness” moderated by social psychologist and Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert, as part of the PBS series  ‘This Emotional Life’, has some great insights on well-being and on how to lead a fulfilled life.  Gilbert’s insights are based on scientific research (as opposed to the self-help industry where, dangerously, 95% of published advice is based on personal opinion rather than proven scientific evidence).

Here are some of the key insights that I wanted to share with you…

(In no particular order!)

Some happiness myths…and the evidence

Psychologist and ‘research of happiness’ pioneer, Ed Diener, has gathered detailed data since 1980 on over a quarter million of people across the globe.  His research has focused on what makes people happy and the effects of being happy. His results show conclusively that happier people enjoy better: health, marriages, sex lives, careers and financial status.

His research also shows that marriage, on average, tends to make people happier, but that having children does not: on average people without children tend to be more content and happier…  Money does make people happier: on average the more money people have, the happier they tend to be. There is a degree of diminishing returns however: above and beyond your basic needs, the percentage of happiness you get from additional dollars decreases.  In other words: buying that first home for you and your family gives you greater satisfaction than buying an additional home and so forth. (Feel free to replace ‘home’ with ‘watches, handbags etc.’!).

In addition to this, Ed found that how you spend money has a direct effect on happiness: spending your dollars on experiences with others or by helping other people serves to increase your own well-being more than just splurging on yourself.

Happiness is a choice

We all have a certain ‘happiness set point’ – and even following extreme positive or negative events (winning the lottery or having cancer), we tend to return to this set point.  This is the result of ‘hedonic adaptation’: we learn to accept change as normal.

This said, we can proactively move the needle on the ‘happiness compass’ through modifying our behavior and the way we think about adversity on a day-to-day basis…

Social Connection is the number one predictor of well-being

The single most important predictor of happiness is feeling connected to others.  According to Dan Gilbert, when social connections are strong, we are happy, when they are lost, we are devastated.

He asserts that: we are connected to each other, we belong to each other and that we are ‘made for each other’. Life is a journey through time, and happiness happens when we make that journey together.

Being socially connected also implies reaching out to others and offering your support. Programs such as AA are successful partly due to the concept of co-sponsorship – research has shown that when AA members sponsored others, they were much more likely to stay sober themselves.

The old: meditation helps to rewire your brain to receive positive signals

Science has shown that for individuals who mediate on a regular basis, there is increased brain activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that is more receptive to processing positive emotions. In other words, meditation is a means to ‘re-wire’ the brain and to promote increased levels of well-being.

The new: positive psychology works

There is prominent evidence that positive psychology and its practical interventions – such as encouraging people to focus on their strengths – has significant positive effects on well-being.  The positive results shown in terms of enhanced leadership skills, and building resilience, have also motivated organizations such as the U.S. army to incorporate positive psychology modules into their training programs.

Positive psychology is still a young science though, and even its founding father, Martin Seligman (Professor at the University of Pennsylvania) acknowledges that: “The enthusiasm [in the press] has gotten ahead of the evidence.”  He calls for of the continued practice and development of the science, and the ongoing sharing of promising ideas amongst practitioners.

Happiness tends to increase with age

Research found that, as we get older, we have greater emotional control and are more apt at avoiding and controlling stressful situations. According to psychology professor Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University, we become clearer about where our strengths lie, what our weaknesses are and what is good for us.  We can then create a happier world for ourselves…


If I had to break down the key points of this enlightening documentary, then I would say: look forward to getting older, be socially active, build your network, meditate, practice life hygiene (work out, stay mentally active, eat well) and, most importantly: spread the word and share your own happiness!