5 indicators of happiness that might surprise you

In recent years, there has been a lot of scientific enquiry directed toward positive psychology in general and happiness in particular. Entire conferences are regularly built around the exploration of what happiness is and how it impacts on the human experience. Each week, the medical and scientific journals are full of new understandings of happiness and its effects. Throughout this publication, examples of this research have been highlighted but here we offer a small representative snapshot of what the journals have reported about happiness over the past couple of years.

Happiness is deep

Is a happy life filled with chatter or deep, reflective conversation? To find out, researchers fitted people with an unobtrusive recording device called an electronically activated recorder (EAR), which they wore over a four-day period. The EAR sampled 30 seconds of sounds every 12 minutes. The researchers listened to the recordings and identified the sounds as trivial small talk or substantive discussions. Additionally, the subjects completed questionnaires to assess their personality and wellbeing. Greater wellbeing was related to less time spent alone and more time talking to others. The happiest participants spent 25 per cent less time alone and 70 per cent more time talking than the unhappiest participants. The happiest participants also had twice as many substantial conversations and 66 per cent less small talk than the unhappiest people. So the happy life features more deep and meaningful and fewer light and fluffy interactions.

Source: Psychological Science, March 2010

Happy is busy

People who have something to do, even something pointless, are happier than people who sit idly. Researchers had volunteers complete a survey, then wait 15 minutes before the next survey would be ready. They could drop off the completed survey at a nearby location and wait out the remaining time or drop it off at a location farther away, where walking back and forth would keep them busy for the 15 minutes. Either way, they would receive a chocolate when they handed in their survey. Volunteers who chose to stay busy by going to the distant location were found to be happier than those who chose to be idle.

Source: Psychological Science, June 2010

Can’t buy me happiness

In a consumer society the question has to be asked: Can you buy happiness? In answer to this, researchers from Cornell University found that satisfaction with “experiential purchases” such as a massage or holiday starts high and increases over time. By contrast, spending money on material things feels good at first but actually makes people less happy in the end. To add to this, another article reported on a worldwide Gallup survey of more than 136,000 people in 132 countries. The survey included questions about happiness and income. The results showed that life satisfaction rises with personal and national income but that positive feelings, which also increase slightly as income rises, are much more strongly associated with other factors such as feeling respected, having autonomy and social support, and working at a fulfilling job.

Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 2010 and July 2010

The happiness gene

Researchers from the London School of Economics have identified a “happiness gene”. The gene in question is the 5-HTT gene and it carries the code for serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a “feel good” neurotransmitter and neurotransmitters require a receptor on cell walls for them to attach to in order to exert their effects. So the 5-HTT gene does not get involved in making serotonin but is necessary for serotonin to be able to work. As it happens, the 5-HTT gene has an allele, or variation, from person to person, meaning it can be either short or long. This allowed the researchers to test to see whether a short or long 5-HTT gene had any correlation with happiness levels. They did this by asking participants in their study whether they were very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, very dissatisfied or “none of the above” with their life as whole. They then matched their genetic makeup to these results, remembering that every person has two codes for the 5-HTT gene: one from their mother and one from their father.

Among those who had a long-long version of the 5-HTT gene, 69 per cent said they were very satisfied or satisfied with life. Only 19 per cent of those with the short-short version were satisfied or very satisfied. This illustrates a very strong link between the 5-HTT gene and happiness, although it does not say that genetics are the whole story. The authors themselves acknowledge that other genes impact on the 5-HTT-happiness link and that life experience will significantly modify any genetic connection. What this does tell us, though, is why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be happier than others.

Source: Journal of Human Genetics, June 2011

No regrets

In this study, more than 750 participants completed surveys about their personalities, life satisfaction and “time perspectives” (whether they are past, present or future oriented). To assess time perspective, participants were asked such questions as whether they enjoy reminiscing about the “good old days” or whether they believe their future is determined by themselves or by fate. The results showed that people’s view of the past had the greatest effect on life satisfaction. Extraverts, who are energetic and talkative, were much more likely to remember the past positively and be happier as a result. People high on the neurotic scale, which can mean being moody, emotionally unstable and fretful, were more likely to have an anguished remembrance of the past and to be less happy. The message: to foster happiness, try looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses and forget regrets.

Source: Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, June 2011

Happiness reduces stroke

The happier you are, the better chance you have of avoiding a stroke. This was found by University of Michigan researchers, who looked at the results of standard optimism tests for 6044 men and women. All were free of stroke at the beginning of the study. The optimism score was on a 16-point scale. The participants self-rated health and the team followed them for two years. During the follow-up period, 88 cases of stroke occurred. After adjusting for age, each unit increase in their optimism score reduced stroke risk by about 9 per cent. One explanation for this improvement is that those who expect the best things in life take steps to promote their health. It might also be that the biological effects of happiness reduce the risk of stroke.

Sources: Stroke, July 2011

Live long and prosper

Research on orang-utans has shed light on how happiness may have evolved in humans and how it may affect lifespan. For the new study, the researchers asked keepers who work with orang-utans to answer questions on behalf of the apes. More than 180 orang-utans were included in the study. The keepers were asked how often the orang-utan was in a good mood and how often the ape was in a bad mood. They were asked whether the ape enjoyed its social interactions and whether it was effective at achieving its goals. All of these are measures of “happiness”. Finally, the keepers were asked how happy they would be if they were the orang-utan in question. The answers given by the keepers were used to assess how happy the orang-utans taking part in the study were. Seven years after the initial interviews, the researchers followed up to see how the apes involved were progressing. They found that among the apes that were scored as being happier than others, a significantly higher percentage were still alive seven years later.

This link between longevity and happiness held true even after taking factors like sex and age into account. Previous research has shown that genetic traits linked to happiness are shared by humans and chimpanzees. So it is likely, although not yet proven, that happiness will confer similar longevity benefits in humans. This is interesting because in evolutionary terms it could be that a happier individual might be communicating, at a subconscious level, that they are likely to live longer (and therefore would make a good mate). While the research does not prove a direct cause-and-effect link between happiness and longevity, it is another reason to choose happiness.

Source: Biology Letters, July 2011

Terry Robson is co-editor of WellBeing magazine. He is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. His latest book Failure IS an Option is available through ABC Books.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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