Are you content with life? A surprising number of us are, say researchers, and they're discovering whyBy Jeremy Daniel
Consider these hypothetical but familiar situations: Alice is a 40-year-old mother of two who works as a data processor. She’s often frustrated and short with her husband and kids; she’s dissatisfied with her job but doesn’t have the energy to look for a new one.
Beth works with Alice and is also married with kids. Beth feels mostly satisfied with her life; she expects each day to be rewarding and accepts ordinary disappointments as a part of living.
Most people—nine out of ten, in fact—see themselves as more like Beth than Alice; they are “very happy” or “pretty happy,” say Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and David Myers of Hope College in Michigan, two of growing cadre of psychologists who are studying happiness. Over five times more studies on life satisfaction have been published since 1979 than at any time previously.
Happiness is measured as anything above “neutral” on what psychologists call a Delighted-Terrible scale. It is just as real statistically as its opposite, depression. People who define themselves as “satisfied” are usually supported in that belief by friends and family.
Psychologists refer it as subjective well-being (SWB) and are teaming with neuropsychiatrists to locate centers for happiness in the brain. One discovery is that happy people show more electrical activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain, while those who tend toward sadness or depression show more right frontal-lobe activity.
Studies of SWB are overturning many cherished myths and coming up with surprising new findings:
Happiness knows no gender. An analysis of 146 SWB studies showed a less than one percent difference in happiness between the sexes.
Happiness doesn’t depend on age. No particular stage of life is less happy than another—not the tumultuous teen-age years or the mid-life period, not even the waning decades of old age. This was borne out by a worldwide survey of almost 170,000 people, conducted in the 1980s and reported by Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan.
Wealth does not beget happiness. Although individual buying power has doubled since the 1950s, in 1990 just as in 1957, only one in three Americans told the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center that they were “very happy.” Says Myers, “We’re twice as rich, yet we’re no happier.”
In a survey of Forbes magazine’s list of the 100 wealthiest people. Diener found the privileged aren’t much happier, overall, than average folk.
Happiness and marriage go together. While marital conflict can be an important factor in people’s unhappiness, “most people are happier than attached,” says Diener.
In a U.S. survey, 39 percent of married adults claimed to be “very happy,” compared to 24 percent of unmarrieds. Married people are less lonely than singles and enjoy more supportive relationships. Also, marriage offers two roles, spouse and parent, that can enhance self-esteem and happiness.
Researchers have pinpointed a number of traits that seem to be shared by happy people. They’re mostly extroverts and, largely optimistic, they have a sense of control and self-esteem.
Happy people also seem healthier. In one psychological study, people who agreed with statements such as “I’m lots of fun to be with” were less vulnerable to ulcers and insomnia, less likely to be drug abusers, more self-confident and better at complex tasks than those who disagreed.
Being really happy, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, means living in a state of flow—that is, being totally absorbed in an activity whether at work or play. He developed the flow concept while at the University of Chicago, where he began by studying artists. he noted they often became involved in their work to the point of being oblivious to their surroundings, a mood more satisfying than even seeing a finished painting.
Eventually he studied “flow” quality in more than 8000 subjects working in a wide range of jobs—scientists, students, machinists, dancers and surgeons. Flow entails the use of all or most of your skills. Using too few generates boredom and anxiety, which Csikszentmihalyi warns may be the biggest threats to happiness.
Culled from his own and other psychologists’ observations, David Myers offers these steps to happiness:
1. Savor the moment. Live in the present: Treasure your child’s smile, the satisfaction of helping a friend, the pleasure of curling up with a good book.
2. Take control of your time. Happy people set big goals, then break them into daily bits. Writing a 300-page book is a formidable task; spinning out two pages daily is easy enough. Repeat this process 150 times and you have a book. This principle can be applied to any task.
3. Accentuate the positive. More and more evidence suggests that negative emotions lash back at us, while positive ones can boost the body’s healing process. Happy people take steps to keep their negative emotions in check.
4. Give priority to close relationships. People with close friends, spouses, partners cope better with stresses such as bereavement, job loss, illness, even rape. According to a U.S. National Opinion Research Center poll, people who could name five close friends were 60 percent more likely to be “very happy” than those who couldn’t name any.
5. Act happy. Experiments show that people who put on a happy face really do feel better. It seems that the facial muscles used to smile widely actually trigger happy feelings in the brain.
6. Don’t vegetate. Don’t engage in self-absorbed idleness or park yourself in front of the TV. Get involved in something that utilizes your skills.
7. Get moving. Aerobic exercise is an antidote to depression and anxiety. In a study of moderately depressed students at the University of Kansas, those in an aerobics program improved dramatically . Those in a relaxation group felt only slightly better.
8. Get rest. Happy people exude vigor, but they also reserve time for sleep and solitude.
9. Take care of the soul. Research on faith and well-being shows that people who are actively religious are happier than those who aren’t. This was confirmed in a survey by the Princeton Religion Research Center and the Gallup Organization on the “State of Religion in America.” Religious people, it appears, are much less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce or to commit suicide.
Of course, faith can’t ensure that we will be immune from sadness, and neither will the principles outlined here. But applied together, they can nudge you along the road to happiness.From Family Circle (September 16, ’96), © 1996 by Gruner + JAHR (USA Publishing, New York, N.Y.)
On a scale of 1 to 7, indicate how much you agree or disagree with each statement.
- Strongly disagree
- Slightly disagree
- Neither agree nor disagree
- Slightly agree
- Strongly agree
- In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.
- So far I have got the important things I want in life.
- If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
Add up your answers and interpret your score.
- 5-9 Extremely dissatisfied with your life
- 10-14 Very dissatisfied
- 15-19 Slightly dissatisfied
- 20 Neutral
- 21-25 Somewhat satisfied
- 26-30 Very satisfied
- 31-35 Extremely satisfied
Most people score in the 21-25 range.
—”Satisfaction With Life Scale.” © Diener, Emmons, Larsen and Griffin.