|

How to get happy, scientifically speaking

happywoman2

Happiness is serious stuff these days, with social scientists studying what it is, exploring how it boosts our health, and how we can get more of it.

Foremost among those researchers is Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab (PEP Lab) at the University of North Carolina, and author of Positivity and Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.

Fredrickson’s research (which she’s been invited to share with the Dalai Lama, a man who practically radiates joy) explores how positive emotions evolved for our human ancestors and how happiness—which she defines as “frequent, recurring experiences of uplift”—can be actively cultivated. 

“One of the biggest misperceptions about happiness is that it’s a state you enter into and then don’t leave,” Fredrickson says. “But all emotions are transitory. The key is understanding that happiness is fleeting. It comes and it goes.” Here are five ways to ensure it comes more often: 

1. Prioritize “uplift.” You know what makes you feel good: working out, calling a friend who’s super positive, engaging in a hobby. The problem is giving yourself permission to do those things when you feel like you should be ticking off items on your to-do list. “Think of these uplifting things as nutrients,” Fredrickson says. “Then make sure you get them.”

Barbara Frederickson

Barbara Fredrickson studies happiness. Photo: Random House

2. Know the difference between pleasure and happiness. Experiences devoid of meaning won’t make you truly happy, Fredrickson warns. So eating a slice of delicious chocolate cake might give you pleasure, but it’s not especially meaningful. On the other hand, making a chocolate cake for your best friend (and maybe sneaking a slice or two) = happiness.

3. Learn what won’t make you happy. External occurrences don’t lead to real joy, so getting a promotion or a fancy new handbag or even a lottery ticket windfall won’t really have the effect on your happiness you might think. Positivity is more of a personal, internal thing.

4. Reflect on your connections. It doesn’t have to be anything formal or fancy, like journaling—just take a few minutes during the day to think about the interactions you’ve had with others. “We did an experiment in the PEP Lab where we asked people to think about their three longest social interactions each day,” Fredrickson says. The simple act of remembering upped their positive emotions, and even boosted heart health. “It didn’t matter how they rated their interactions, just that they thought about them did the trick,” Fredrickson says.

5. Get outside. You should spend 20 minutes outside, preferably in pleasant weather, Fredrickson says. And no, looking out a window doesn’t cut it. (Good thing I interviewed her while sitting on a park bench, in the sun!). —Ann Abel

For more information about Dr. Frederickson and her work, visit www.positivityresonance.com