The Secret Science of Happiness


Traditionally, psychology has focused on what troubles the human mind.

But recently the likes of Dr Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) and Dr Edward Diener (University of Illinois) have turned that frown upside down. So to speak.


Dr Ed Diener: happy guy


Research into the science of happiness is now flourishing. And while some of the results in this field might be expected, there’s a few that may come as a surprise too.

For starters, here are a few things you might think will make you happy, but probably won’t:


Illusions of Happiness

1) Physical Attractiveness. Just like wealth, this one’s relative too. It seems more or less everyone tends to focus on their physical flaws and compare themselves unflatteringly to those around them.

2) Education. Despite what your parents told you, while a good education may help your job prospects, there’s no correlation with general happiness.

3) Intelligence. Similar to education, high IQ seems no boon to happiness. In fact, given intellectuals’ predisposition to frustration with peers, social isolation and even mental illness, if anything high intelligence is a happiness-handicap.

4) Living in a Sunny Clime. Research indicates that although those living in less sunny places tend to assume their neighbours in balmier spots are happier, and the sunshine dwellers themselves agree, there’s no actual scientific evidence of any difference whatsoever.


Got sunshine on a cloudy day


5) Youth. A 2004 study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found 20-24 year olds reported experiencing almost double the number of sad or depressed days than those aged 65-74.

6) Wealth. Income satisfaction is 100% relative. There are Wall Street executives perpetually dissatisfied due to the feeling of being in neverending material completion with their colleagues, and Nigerians earning $300 a year who consistently rank as the happiest people in the world.

It seems once you meet your basic needs, additional wealth makes little difference.

7) Fame and influence. Research shows almost nothing is more stressful than having your goals tied to other people’s approval, and famous people are four times as likely to commit suicide.

Plus, ambition for power and influence is also generally associated with antisocial and sociopathic tendencies.


Yeah. Enough said


Blame Your Parents

So where does happiness come from?

To an extent, your parents. Not just in terms of providing a warm or negative environment, but also there may be a genetic predisposition towards happiness, new research says. Some people it seems really just are more or less born happy.

All in all, it seems about half your happiness level is out of your personal control: genes, environment, social and vocational situation.

The good news though, is that the other half probably is within your control. You can make a positive impact on your own happiness.


The Secrets of True Happiness

1)  Friends. 2002 research by Diener and Seligman found that students with the highest happiness levels and lowest depression indicators consistently were highly social, having strong friendships they committed significant amounts of time to maintaining.

2)  Family. Same goes here.

3)  Faith. Findings show religious faith is strongly associated with genuine happiness. It’s not clear though how much of this is due to religious experience, and how much the social aspect of belonging to a faith community.

4) Focus on positive experiences, not things. Social groups (be they families or friendship circles) tend to report higher levels of happiness when they spend their money and time doing activities together, rather than acquiring bigger and better material possessions. This is believed to be due to the emotional imprint memories of such experiences create; significantly higher, say, than the day you bought that new iPad.

5) Follow your passion, find your purpose. This one’s probably self-explanatory.

6) Foster Gratitude and Be Giving. As conventional wisdom says, selfless people are usually happier people. This is probably because a general focus on others tends to mean less time spent criticising your own life situation. Maintaining a general mind-set of gratitude is also linked with higher levels of reported happiness.

There’s an old Latin saying, Quod Petis Hic Est, which translates roughly as: ‘what you seek is here’. Based what science is now saying, it seems finding contentment in what you have might just be the secret to happiness after all.

How happy are you? Test your ‘happiness level’ here.

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