“Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and the end of human existence.” Aristotle
The benefit of happiness seems to be obvious: the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. The experience of happiness is the ultimate aim, the ultimate benefit, the ultimate experience in life. But while Aristotle had a philosophical vision of the importance of happiness for human well-being, today there is a range of science and research that confirms it.
Scientific studies suggest that happy people are:
- having a better health
- live longer
- more likely to get married and to have fulfilling marriages and more friends
- more productive at work and successful
- coping better with stress
1. Happy People are Healthier
As the science of happiness and health matures, researchers are trying to determine what role, if any, happiness actually plays in causing health benefits. From the little common cold, passing through heart disease and arriving to longevity, studies suggest that happiness has a real impact on our health and length of life.
In a 2003 experiment done by Cohen S. et al, 334 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 54 years volunteered to get exposed to the common cold. They were assessed for their tendency to experience positive emotions such as happy, pleased, and relaxed; and for negative emotions such as anxious, hostile, and depressed. Subsequently, they were given nasal drops containing one of two rhinoviruses and monitored in quarantine for the development of a common cold (illness in the presence of verified infection). For both viruses and after 5 days in quarantine, happy people (relates to increased positive emotional style) showed greater resistance to cold.
A 2010 study, researchers examined whether higher levels of positive affect are associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease in a large prospective study with 10 years of follow-up. Observers rated participants on a scale of one to five for the extent to which they expressed positive emotions like joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment. 10 years later, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how they were doing—and it turned out that the happier ones were less likely to have developed coronary heart disease. In fact, for each one-point increase in positive emotions they had expressed, their heart disease risk was 22% lower.
2. Happy People Live Longer
One of my favoured studies was made by Danner and colleagues in 2001, on nuns. Catholic nuns are excellent research subjects from a medical and psychological stand point as they live in similar conditions (income, diet, education, access to health care, habits), they are a stable community (they don’t move) and it was possible to follow them for a period of more than 60 years.
So, in 1930, each sister had been asked by Mother Superior to write a short autobiographical essay about herself, several hundred words long, like a cover letter. Danner and colleagues analyzed the emotional content of those autobiographical essays written by 180 sisters born after 1917 and scored them by counting number of sentences that contained negative emotion words.
By the 1990, about 40% of the sample had died and the researchers investigated whether the emotional content of the essays written 6 decades earlier had any relationship to survival. The happier nun (those in the upper 25% of the essay writers) lived on average 10 years longer than their less-happy counterparts (those in the bottom 25%).
In 2015, Lawrence, Rogers & Wadsworth examined the relationship between happiness and longevity among 31.481 U.S. adults through their survival rate over a 30-years period. Participants who were rated the least happy had a 14% higher chance of death than their happiest counterparts.
3. More Likely To Get Married And To Have Fulfilled Marriages
In 2001, Harker and Keltner made this very interesting study on yearbooks. Actually, they analyzed 114 pictures from the 1958 and 1960 yearbooks. The average rating (10-point scale reflecting the Duchene-ness*) of the smiles was 3.8. The women in those pictures were participants in a long-term study of important life events (Helson, 1967). Specifically, the researchers knew – decades after their yearbook photos – whether the women were married and if they were satisfied with their marriages. As it turns out, the Duchenne-ness of their yearbook smiles predicted both of these outcomes. Positive emotional expression predicted favourable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being up to 30 years later.
4. Happy People Are More Productive At Work
Oswald and colleagues (2015) provide evidence that happiness makes people more productive by 12%. The results were obtained through 4 different styles of experiment and it also shows that lower happiness is systematically associated with lower productivity. These different forms of evidence, with complementary strengths and weaknesses, are consistent with the existence of a causal link between human well-being and human performance.
Experiment 1: a comedy movie clip is played to a group of subjects. The subjects’ later measured productivity on a standardised task is found to be substantially greater than in groups of control subjects who did not see the clip. This result is a simple cross-sectional one.
However, the finding has a causal interpretation because it rests on a randomised treatment.
Experiment 2: a comedy clip is again used. This time, however, repeated longitudinal measurements are taken. The greatest productivity boost is shown to occur among the subjects who experience the greatest improvement in happiness.
Experiment 3: a different treatment is adopted. In an attempt to mirror somewhat more closely—admittedly still in a stylized way—the sort of policies that might potentially be provided by actual employers, the treatment subjects are provided with chocolate, fruit, and drinks. As before, a positive productivity effect is produced, and again the size of that effect is substantial.
Experiment 4: subjects’ productivities are measured at the very outset. At the end of the experiment, these subjects are quizzed, by questionnaire, about recent tragedies in their families’ lives. Those who report tragedies at the end of the laboratory trial are disproportionately ones who had significantly lower productivity at its start. Those individuals also report lower happiness.
In a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies made on 275.000 participants, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and successful business outcomes. They show that happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. The authors suggest a conceptual model to account for these findings, arguing that the happiness–success link exists not only because success makes people happy, but also because positive affect engenders success. Three classes of evidence— cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental—are documented to test their model. Relevant studies are described and their effect sizes combined meta-analytically. The results reveal that happiness is associated with and precedes numerous successful outcomes, as well as behaviors paralleling success.
5. Happy People Are Better Coping With Stress
Happiness makes you resilient. It helps you recover from stress. In 2011, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the researchers of this study, has called this the “undo effect.” Happiness can “undo” the negative aftereffects of stress, anxiety, depression, or negativity in general. In the first study, she tests this undoing effect on 170 participants experiencing anxiety-induced cardiovascular reactivity. The participants viewed a film that elicited contentment, amusement, neutrality, or sadness. The experiment was to see how different film clips (two of which induced positive emotions, one negative emotions, and one neutral emotions) impacted recovery from the stress. It turns out that contentment-eliciting and amusing films produced faster cardiovascular recovery than neutral or sad films did. In the second study, 185 participants viewed these same films following a neutral state. Results disconfirm the alternative explanation that the undoing effect reflects a simple replacement process as positive emotions can help regulate negative emotions.
In 1993, Diener & Larsen already have showed that the balance of people’s positive and negative emotions contributes to their judgments of life satisfaction.
Excess stress causes higher levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – which can lead to a number of health conditions. Several studies have found that individuals who are happier have consistently lower cortisol levels in their blood (Smyth et al, 1998, Davydov et al, 2005, Steptoe et al 2008).
Happiness the right way
As positive emotions reliably alter people’s thinking and actions, we should all focus on building happiness. One warning though.
Assistant Professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Jane Gruber has shown that sort of having excessive positive or extreme positive emotions or seeking positive emotions all the time in an intensive way is associated with being at risk. By recognizing the potential pitfalls of happiness, we enable ourselves to understand it more deeply and we learn to better promote healthier and more balanced lives. Here are a few pieces of valuable advises:
- It is important to experience happiness in the right amount.
Too little happiness is just as problematic as too much.
- Happiness has a time and a place.
One must be mindful about the context or situation in which one experiences happiness.
- It is important to strike an emotional balance.
One cannot experience happiness at the cost or expense of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger or guilt. These are all part of a complex recipe for emotional health and help us attain a more grounded perspective. Emotional balance is crucial.
- It is important to pursue and experience happiness for the right reasons.
Too much focus on striving for happiness as an end in itself can actually be self-defeating. Rather than trying to zealously find happiness, we should work to build acceptance of our current emotional state, whatever it may be. True happiness, it seems, comes from fostering kindness toward others—and toward yourself.
Last but not least
If you ever wondered how people who are happy in life look like, here is a science-backed portrait:
- they have an easy time feeling good and recovering from adversity;
- they have close, supportive social connections;
- and they believe that their presence in the world matters.
As Aristotle was saying: “Happiness is a life lived according to virtue”.