Written by Laura Coelho
It’s in my ears wherever I go these days. It’s the music I dance-walk to as I buy chapstick at the drug store. It’s the music I dance-eat to at my local burrito shop. It’s the music I dance-read to on the bus. I visited Pharrell’s 24 hour music video website recently. I smiled and sang, “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…” I might have danced, too.
The more I listen to Happy, the more I wonder: What IS happiness? Scientists acknowledge that happiness is a complex construct, meaning something different from person to person, community to community, moment to moment, and the list goes on. Still, it is interesting to try to understand what happiness means.
Validated happiness scales, with indicators such as life satisfaction, health, community, and civic engagement, begin to describe the construct of happiness. Positive psychologist, Ed Diener, asserts that happiness, or “subjective well-being,” is a combination of life satisfaction and experiencing more positive emotions than negative emotions. Martin Seligman, another lead researcher in positive psychology, divides happiness into three parts: pleasure, or the “feel good” part of happiness; engagement, or living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies; and meaning, or contributing to a larger purpose. Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at Harvard and former product manager in the software industry, recently built a smart phone application, Track Your Happiness, that enables people to report their feelings in real time. Killingsworth found that people were often the happiest when they were lost in the moment.
Despite the somewhat elusive nature of the term, happiness is important to the field of public health. Research indicates that there are positive health benefits of happiness. In a review of more than 160 human and animal studies researchers found that “happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers.” Laura Kubzansky at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data from a study that followed 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years and identified that emotional vitality – defined as a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance – appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Results from an eight-year study following more than 3,000 people age 60 and older living in England showed that happier people maintained better physical function as they aged, even when adjusting for potential confounders such as age, lifestyle, and economic situation. According to the American Happiness Association, people who are positive about aging live 7.5 years longer than those with less positive perceptions, a benefit that surpasses those of smoking cessation, exercise, and obesity control. Researchers at UCLA are even showing that genes of people with high levels of eudaimonic well-being, or happiness rooted in living a purposeful life, function better by keeping inflammatory gene expression low and antiviral and antibody expression high. So, what can we do to live happier, and therefore healthier, lives?
The Mayo Clinic has five tips for cultivating contentment:
- Invest in relationships
- Express gratitude
- Cultivate optimism
- Find your purpose
- Live in the moment
Pretty easy stuff, huh? Or maybe we should all participate in the #100happydays challenge. People who successfully completed the challenge claimed to start noticing what makes them happy every day; be in a better mood every day; start receiving more compliments from other people; realize how lucky they are to have the life they have; become more optimistic; and fall in love. That sounds pretty good to me! And, possibly best of all, if you complete the challenge you get a book with the 100 happy photos you posted during the challenge. I don’t know about you, but another picture book of my cats sounds pretty good to me!
OK, you get the point.
Although these tips may be useful and the #100happydays challenge sounds fun, being happy is not solely a product of individual effort. As Kubzansky cautions, “When you take this research out of the social context, it has the potential to be a slippery slope for victim blaming.” So the question then becomes: How can we, as public health professionals, create contexts in which people can be happy? Healthy? Free of violence, worry, and chronic stress? With smiles and laughter, fresh produce, and walkable streets?
Maybe we can learn some lessons from the small country of Bhutan, with its multidimensional Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. The measure is rooted in the idea that the pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced personally, and is reliant on nine domains: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standard, health, education, and good governance. According to A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index, “the GNH Index is meant to orient the people and the nation towards happiness, primarily by improving the conditions of not-yet-happy people.” Perhaps the GNH Index would be more useful than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for identifying health policies to improve happiness and health among United States citizens?
I am not quite sure where we go from here, but the data and statistics clearly show that happiness is an important construct to understand for public health professionals. I am confident that from individual level solutions to policy interventions, we will find real ways to create a more equitable world in which happiness is not such an elusive construct, but one felt and known by all.