The Science of Happiness

Focus for Health Foundation Staff

May 3, 2022

The science of happiness is a new concept and one historically viewed with skepticism by real scientist. Depression and sadness are measurable and worthy of attention, while happiness seems to abstract or childish to study, yet the field of positive society is challenging those antiquated beliefs.  As it turns out, 40% of happiness is a verb (an action) that can (and should) be practiced like any other skill. There is a large genetic or biological component to our internal state and perception of happiness, but, very little, only 10% is caused by our circumstances. What this means in practice, is very much of our experience of personal happiness is on our own hands, and with training and practice, can be improved.

Happiness, in psychology, a state of emotional well-being that a person experiences either in a narrow sense, when good things happen in a specific moment, or more broadly, as a positive evaluation of one’s life and accomplishments overall—that is, subjective well-being.

Recent evidence points towards a mental health crisis.  The following statistics are found on the NAMI: National Alliance for Mental Illness website.

  • Among U.S. ADOLESCENTS (aged 12-17):
  • 1 in 6 experienced a major depressive episode (MDE)
  • 3 million had serious thoughts of suicide
  • 31% increase in mental health-related emergency department visits

Among U.S. YOUNG ADULTS (aged 18-25):

  • 1 in 3 experienced a mental illness
  • 1 in 10 experienced a serious mental illness
  • 8 million had serious thoughts of suicide

In the US, the rate of antidepressant use has surged 400% over the last decade, according to the CDC, though that may also be due to the heavy marketing of drugs like Zoloft, Lexapro and Paxil

What are we so unhappy about?

So, what can we do to improve our happiness?  Interestingly, avoiding adversity is not the way.  We can train children and adults in ways that will improve their subjective experience of happiness as well as increase their demonstration of pro social behaviors.  Common techniques to teach happiness are as follows:

  • Teach Psychology and Good Habits. Exercise daily, socialize regularly, and practice daily gratitude affirmations. Teaching people how the brain works and how are body responses to stress, anger and other negative emotions can allow people to manage those responses more positively.
  • Teach Positivity and Self-Reliance. Resilience is usually earned through adversity and as a result, absence of adverse events is rarely a path to happiness.
  • Teach Social and Emotional Learning. Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. Studies consistently show that EQ is a better predictor of a child’s career success than IQ. In fact, EQ skills account for 54 percent of the variation in adults’ level of success, one study found. Additionally, children with strong EQ get higher grades, earn more advanced degrees, and make healthier life choices. Yet, traditional education stress grades and academic stress as being more important than emotional hygiene.
  • Teach Problem-Solving. Problem solving helps individuals to adopt a realistically optimistic view of coping, understand the role of emotions more effectively, and creatively develop an action plan geared to reduce psychological distress and enhance well-being. Experiencing adversity is potentially a positive experience for children as it is a way to build resilience and self-confidence.
  • What science does tell us is that there are physical health benefits to happiness:
  • Improved Heart Health
  • Ability to Combat Stress More Effectively
  • A Stronger Immune System
  • Overall Healthier Lifestyle
  • Can Help Reduce Pain
  • Increased Life Longevity

Why should we teach happiness to children?

If 40% of our individual happiness is within our power, it begs the question… Can happiness be taught? Yes, according to psychologists.  The new thinking is that happiness is a skill that can be taught and practiced in the same way as riding a bike or playing a musical instrument. Happiness is crucial for learning and critical thinking, so it makes sense to consider adding Happiness curriculum to student activity rosters and that is exactly what the Government of Delhi did July 2018. “The objective is to improve the mental well-being of pupils, and it teaches mindfulness, social-emotional learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and relationship building. Its purpose is to build emotional awareness, to support decision making with that emotional awareness, to equip pupils with the necessary skills and environment to become purpose-driven and explore a nuanced idea of happiness”.

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