It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and lose sight of what makes you happy. Really happy. But making sure your happiness meter is giving optimal readings can provide many health benefits.
Happy people have younger hearts, younger arteries, and a younger RealAge. Happy people recover more quickly from surgery, cope better with pain, have lower blood pressure, and have longer life expectancy than unhappy people.
Studies also suggest that happy people may have stronger immune systems -- they're less likely to get colds and flu viruses. And when they do, their symptoms tend to be mild.
Not surprisingly, happy people are better at looking after their health, too. When people's happiness levels improve, so do their health behaviors. They exercise more, wear sunscreen, and go for regular checkups.
How to Get There
Everyone wants to be happy, and the benefits are clearly plentiful. But the fact is that people aren't always great at predicting what will make them happy. If it's long-term happiness you're after, you may need to learn a few new tricks.
What Is Happiness?
We all know when we're happy and when we're not. But ask a roomful of people what makes them happy and you're likely to get a wide range of responses, from "watching the sunset" or "spending time with good friends" to "finding a great shoe sale" or "winning the office football pool."
Defining happiness is no simple feat.
In an effort to narrow the definition, researchers have devised a series of questionnaires to measure life satisfaction, positive mood, and subjective well-being. Some scientists are even beginning to use brain imaging to better understand the physiology of happiness. And economists have jumped on the happiness bandwagon, too, hoping to calculate the value of happiness within a sociopolitical context.
So what have they discovered? What makes for a happy life?
It's Partly Your Genes
Your level of happiness is not entirely predetermined by your genes, but genes do play a part, just as they play a part in your general health. Some researchers estimate that as much as 40% to 50% of a person's capacity for happiness may be genetically predetermined. And although that means some lucky people may start off with a greater propensity for happiness, it's no guarantee they'll lead a charmed life. Fortunately, evidence suggests that even the gloomiest of us can learn to be happier.
And learn we must. Left to our own devices, we tend to focus our energies on things that will give us the greatest instant pleasure. Even when we know better.
Test Your Happiness Know-How
Think you know the secret to happiness? Check the happiness accuracy of some of these common answers. You might be surprised.
- A Massage and Pamper Day at the Spa
Aahhh, yes. A day at the spa is not only pleasurable, it's also a great de-stressor. And keeping your stress levels under control will have a positive effect on your physical and emotional well-being.
- Winning a Million Dollars
Winning a million bucks will make you instantly wealthy, that's for sure. But happy? Not so much. Read on to find out why money won't buy you bliss.
- Renting a Beach House for a Week with Your Closest Friends
Spending quality time with good friends is one of the key components of a happy life. And taking time off to relax will also keep your stress levels low. But don't wait for rare opportunities like this to get together with your friends.
- Losing 10 Pounds
It's important to your health and happiness to maintain a healthy weight. But yo-yo dieting and lose-weight-quick scams are likely to starve you of the happiness you're after.
- World Peace
A noble aspiration, but you might want to start small—setting unrealistic goals may be a happiness deterrent. Do your part for peace by getting involved with an organization that promotes nonviolent conflict resolution or another peace-promoting issue you feel strongly about. Helping others and feeling a sense of purpose in life is linked to greater happiness.
- Finally Getting the Garage Organized
It may not be glamorous but it certainly is gratifying. Cleaning out the clutter and creating a usable space will give you a sense of achievement that's guaranteed to boost your well-being.
- Having Superhero Powers
Superhero powers would be super cool, without a doubt. But they might cause more stress than happiness. Plus, it's never going to happen. By focusing on more attainable goals, you'll be more likely to make them come true and that will make you happy.
- A Long Walk (or Run) in the Park
Physical activity is a great way to instantly increase your sense of well-being. And by incorporating exercise into your daily routine you'll be both healthier and happier in the long run.
- A Sharp Rise in the Value of Your Investments
It's wise to invest in your future but not so wise to link your happiness to the stock market. Contribute emotional capital to your relationships and personal growth and you may see a steady rise in your happiness levels.
Read on to find out more about what makes people happy, what doesn't, and what you can do to live a full and happy life.
Health and Happiness
Studies show that a person's health is one of the strongest predictors of happiness. But the link between health and happiness is complex. Research shows little correlation between a person's objective health -- as defined by medical assessment -- and happiness. It's our subjective health -- how we view our health -- that affects our well-being. So is happiness all in your head?
Not necessarily. For example, adverse changes in health do have a negative impact on happiness levels, at least temporarily. Poor health has the potential to significantly affect almost every aspect of your life: your independence, your self-image, your personal relationships, your ability to work and carry out basic daily activities. So it's no surprise that when your health takes a hit, your happiness does as well.
But people are resilient. We become accustomed to new life circumstances, good or bad. We adapt. Within a month or two of an adverse health event, most people have gravitated back toward the level of happiness they enjoyed before their health took a turn for the worse.
When the change in health status is severe, however -- for example, involving chronic pain or multiple disabilities -- the impact on happiness can be long lasting.
And both physical health and emotional health influence happiness. Mood disorders diminish quality of life even more than chronic physical ailments, such as arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.
What You Can Do
Do all that you can to maintain a healthy lifestyle and you'll be well on your way to a long life rich in happiness.
Be your healthiest and happiest by eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and veggies, keeping stress levels to a minimum, getting regular checkups, wearing sunscreen, laughing often, moderating alcohol intake, getting plenty of exercise, and not smoking. Your RealAge Plan will provide more personalized detail on this.
Exercise not only helps keep you healthy but also keeps you happy. In general, increasing the amount of physical activity in your life increases well-being, whether it's yoga, weight training, or daily walks around the neighborhood. One study of nearly 7,000 men and women revealed that walking, jogging, or running between 11 and 19 miles per week was optimal for improving emotional well-being.
But don't overdo it or underdo it. Moderate exercise offers the biggest boost in happiness.
And if you think you may be living with a mood disorder, get it treated. Appropriate treatment can help reduce your symptoms, increase your sense of well-being, and get you back on track to a happy life.
Social Side Up
Developing your social side is crucial for well-being. Studies show that people who are socially active, who are compassionate, and who are emotionally generous have higher levels of happiness and live longer than people who lead a more solitary life.
Research also shows that people who have strong interpersonal skills rank in the highest levels of happiness, and those who are socially isolated have substantially lower levels of well-being.
Social skills are just one part of this happiness factor, though. People who maintain good personal relationships also fare better than people who are socially inactive. Open, trusting, intimate relationships are essential building blocks for a happy life.
And it isn't only receiving support that makes us happy; it's being able to give support to others as well.
Of course, many see marriage as one of the ultimate social relationships. But studies on marriage and happiness are somewhat conflicting, and the causal relationship between the two is unclear. On average, people who are married tend to report higher levels of happiness than people who are not married. Unmarried people in committed relationships also tend to be happier than people in casual relationships.
But it's not clear if this is because people who are predisposed to being happy are more likely to marry, or because marriage itself makes people happier, or if there is still some other yet-to-be-discovered dynamic at play between marriage and happiness. Although observational studies clearly show an association between well-being and relationships, there is no evidence to prove that one causes the other.
One theory for the correlation between happiness and marriage is that, compared with married people, people who aren't married tend to experience lower levels of social approval as well as fewer financial and social benefits. These factors may play a role in the lower levels of personal well-being reported by people who are not married.
What You Can Do
When important personal relationships come to an end, it can have a lasting negative impact on happiness. So use your energies to nurture the relationships that mean the most to you. Not all relationships are meant to be, of course, and getting out of a destructive relationship can do more for your health and happiness than staying in it. But if it is within your power to make a good relationship work, you have every reason to try.
Keep all of your other personal relationships healthy, vibrant, and strong by spending quality time with friends and family. Make a standing date with the people you love -- it'll give you something to look forward to and help relieve stress levels.
And while you're appreciating the people who are already near and dear, don't forget to welcome new friendships into your life.
Happiness and the Meaningful Life
According to the founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, a happy life is one that is pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful. And the more engaging and meaningful, the better. Seligman suggests that people who focus their energies on leading an engaged and meaningful life are more successful at achieving lifelong happiness than those who focus on the transitory feel-goods of pleasure.
Research appears to support his theories. A study revealed that participants' subjective well-being was directly affected by the fulfillment they derived from the activities they spent most of their energy on, whether that was raising children, working, or volunteering. Research on aging shows that being actively involved in life is linked to increased levels of happiness.
What You Can Do
Spend more time doing what you love. Engaging in activities that are in line with your values and interests can improve your sense of well-being. If you feel as though you've lost touch with what those activities might be, think about what captivates you so entirely that you lose yourself in the moment and forget about your stress.
It's likely to be something you're good at that also provides you with a bit of a challenge or some kind of emotional reward. Some examples might be gardening, writing, painting, surfing, cycling, volunteering, or playing a musical instrument.
If you can make your activities social, all the better. Whereas personal hobbies, such as knitting, have been linked to an increase in happiness, social activities have been associated with an increase in both happiness and life expectancy.
As you focus on bringing meaning to your life, be sure to set realistic, attainable goals. People who do so report being happier than people who focus on grandiose long-term goals. Being able to realize goals that reflect your personal values and interests can help reinforce your sense of autonomy, purpose, and achievement. This has been shown to contribute significantly to overall well-being.
3 More Ways to Get Happy
1. Forget the Joneses
Social comparison is a natural part of human behavior, and it can be a healthy source of both motivation and affirmation. But taken to the extreme, social comparison can become an unhealthy, unhappy competition. Try not to compare your successes to others. Happiness researchers identify this as a key detractor to life satisfaction.
It can be especially harmful if you are making material comparisons. Some studies show that placing too much importance on material wealth can make people very unhappy.
Just as people adapt to bad situations, they also adapt to good ones. With each new pay raise or purchase, aspirations also increase.
People get used to the good life. Once the initial thrill of extra income and the latest luxuries wears off, they want more. Another raise, a faster car, a bigger house.
It becomes a never-ending cycle that leaves people feeling perpetually unsatisfied.
2. Share Your Skills
Giving back to the community and helping others is linked to greater levels of happiness, particularly for people who are retired or not employed. Volunteering in your community can provide a valuable social interaction, increase your sense of purpose, and, yes, make you happier.
Check out the Network for Good Web site to search a database of volunteer organizations by zip code and area of interest.
3. Do Your Happiness Homework
Seligman and his happiness colleagues have devised and tested a number of exercises to help boost well-being. Here are several activities that have been found to be most effective:
- Take note of what's good in your life. Literally. Studies show that people who spend a few minutes every evening writing down what went well each day show a significant increase in well-being.
- Tone-up your signature strengths. Signature strengths are the things you're really good at. Discover your signature strengths at www.authentichappiness.com. Once you know what your strengths are, try using one of them in a new way every day for a week.
- Give gratitude. Write a letter of thanks to someone who has been particularly good to you or has had a profound impact on your life. Once the letter is written, deliver it personally to the recipient. If your gratitude letter has a long distance to travel, call the recipient to make sure it was received and tell the person on the phone how much you appreciate his or her presence in your life.
No More Mystery
There is no mysterious magical formula that you have to follow exactly in order to achieve happiness. Happiness is a personal journey of self-discovery. What makes you happy is not necessarily the same as what makes your friend, your partner, or your son or daughter happy.
Experimenting with key happiness factors will help you find the combination that works for you. Just be sure to take stock now and then to see how your emotional health is doing. It's worth your time and attention. Not only does your health benefit from it, but there's nothing like a contented smile, a look of ease, and a few sexy laugh lines to make you look -- and feel -- years younger.
The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, according to the Declaration of Independence. And researchers have long associated happiness with good health and wealth. Is that really true? The study of happiness is a growing field in psychology and health, and the research comes up with conflicting results.
In a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, researchers found that subjective well-being—a sense of satisfaction with life and having positive emotions—predicted better health and greater longevity in populations from around the world.
But more recently, in a 2015 study published in the Lancet, British researchers who tracked over 700,000 women in the United Kingdom concluded that the reverse is true. Their surveys found that having better health in the first place likely makes people feel happier.
Whether it’s happiness that influences health or the other way around, it’s clear that good emotional states and good health tend to go together. Here are some of the recent findings on what factors have the greatest bearing on happiness, and how much of your well-being is within your control.
Happiness is not about money—to a point
Researchers used to assume that having more money makes people happier—and that assumption was supported by good data. From the 1920s to the 1950s, an era of depression and world war, as household income rose there was an increase in people’s self-reported happiness. But more current research shows that money increases happiness only up to a point. Studies by the Nobel laureate psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman showed that money increases happiness until people earn about $75,000 annually, and after that your emotional well-being doesn’t increase with income.
Your sense of happiness may be related to your age
Investigators from the University of Warwick in England and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire say happiness tends to decline in midlife—whatever your circumstances and wherever you live.
The sample of humanity in their 2008 study (in Social Science & Medicine) was enormous—2 million people from 80 nations. Where did they get the information? Unbeknownst to most of us, huge surveys of well-being exist and are regularly updated and analyzed. These include the U.S. General Social Surveys, the Eurobarometers, and the World Values Surveys.
Amazingly enough, all over the world, from Bangladesh to Sweden to Chile, people say midlife is a hassle. The probability of depression peaks in midlife, and happiness reaches a low point. In the U.S. this typically happens to women at about age 40 and to men at about 50. In Europe and Asia, happiness shrinks for both sexes in their forties and fifties. People move gradually into this downswing, then seem to slowly climb back out as life goes on—all other factors being equal. People in their sixties and seventies, if healthy physically, tend to be as happy as young people. Researchers thus often refer to a “U-shaped curve” of happiness over the life cycle.
Your relationships count—a lot
A large body of research indicates that your social relationships are not only related to your sense of happiness, but also to your health and longevity. A 2010 analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people found that social relationships have as great an impact on mortality as smoking and alcohol consumption— and a greater impact than obesity or physical inactivity. Most recently, a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that social isolation is a more important risk factor for high blood pressure than diabetes, which is known to increase the risk of hypertension.
One likely explanation is that social support “buffers” against stress—that is, it provides emotional and tangible resources that help us deal with adverse events and illness and maybe even enhances resistance to illness. Being part of a social network often gives us meaningful roles that boost self-esteem and purpose of life, which in turn can improve mental and physical health.
“The importance of good social relationships for health has now been shown in almost every study ever done,” says S. Leonard Syme, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and a pioneer in the study of the effects of social relationships and other social determinants on health. (Syme has been a member of our Editorial Board since our first issue in 1984.)
In fact, we humans appear to be hardwired to need strong social ties. In a 2015 paper in Current Opinion In Psychology, James Coan and David Sbarra describe the Social Baseline Theory. It suggests, based on years of social psychology and neuroscience research, that being alone is fundamentally harder than being together with others. According to their research, it simply requires more effort and resources to function in the world solo.
A measure of happiness may be within your control
Some people who have few friends or family members can do little about it because of personal problems or just the luck of the draw. But many others may have more control over their happiness than they think. Research by Sonia Lyubomirsky, PhD, at UC Riverside suggests that while about half of your sense of happiness is set by your genetics, life circumstances—how privileged you are, whether you’re married, whether you have kids—accounts for just 10 percent of the variance in happiness. Her 2005 study published in the Review of General Psychology attributes 40 percent—nearly half the variance—to your daily life experiences: The people you see, the activities you do, how you see your world each day.
Not all researchers agree with her model. But if it is right, then you have the capacity to change your sense of well-being and happiness. So this year, make an effort to get out of yourself by, for instance, joining a club or working for a cause you believe in. Try to adopt a new perspective on other people that’s less fearful or competitive. You may add greatly to your life.
Also see5 Science-Backed Strategies for More Happiness from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.