Can science really show us how to be happy? Hanna Lindon investigates.
Happiness has traditionally been treated as something elusive and intangible – a quality that comes from within, impossible to correlate or quantify. In fact, there’s growing evidence to show that happiness, wellbeing, contentment or whatever you choose to call it can be measured and manipulated just like any other scientific subject. The UK now has a ‘happiness index’, which is given the same weighting as the GDP in measuring the country’s progress. Scientists at University College London (UCL) have even come up with an equation for happiness. If that leaves you perplexed rather than basking in wellbeing, you wouldn’t be alone. So what, when it comes right down to it, is this happiness business all about? And how can science help you get a bigger slice of it?
Over the centuries, countless philosophers, physicians and psychologists have tried to pin down a definition of happiness. Plato believed that the human soul consisted of three parts – the reason, the will and the desire – and that a person was happy when all those parts were in balance. Epicurus, another Ancient Greek thinker, said that happiness was living everything in the right degree and knowing one’s ‘point of enough’.
Nowadays we tend to see happiness as rooted in physical processes. Most scientists would contend that a feeling of wellbeing is prompted by changes in the brain – more specifically, increased electrical activity in the left pre-frontal cortex and the sub-cortex. Neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, endorphine and serotonin are also thought to play a role.
“there is strong evidence that certain habits and activities do indeed correlate strongly with happiness. Number one on the list? smiling more”
It’s a small step from identifying happiness as a physical reaction to isolating the factors that trigger that reaction. No scientist has yet come up with a single, indubitable key to wellbeing, but there is strong evidence that certain habits and activities do indeed correlate strongly with happiness. Number one on the list? Smiling more.
Smiling is a natural reaction to feeling happy – but did you know that it works both ways? When you grin, your body releases a feel-good cocktail of endorphins, natural painkillers and serotonin, which combine to make you feel even better. In other words, just making the effort to smile more could instantly boost your happiness levels.
A study carried out by a Cardiff University psychologist produced evidence to back up this theory. Dr Michael Lewis found that patients who received Botox treatment that prevented them from smiling strongly reported feeling more depressed. Conversely, those who had Botox for frown lines felt happier.
“The expressions that we make on our face affect the emotions we feel,” explains Dr Lewis. “We smile because we are happy but smiling also makes us happy.”
Feeling a bit down in the dumps? Your family and friends could be to blame. Scientists are increasingly suggesting that happiness is a collective emotion, which spreads through social networks almost like a virus.
So, if all your friends are grumpy, then it’s pretty likely that you will be as well – and the buck doesn’t stop at your close acquaintances.
“Your emotional state may depend on the emotional experiences of people you don’t even know, who are two to three degrees removed from you,” says Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis, who co-authored a study into the indirect spread of happiness. “One person’s happiness triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. The effect lasts for up to one year.”
Aristotle famously said that ‘Happiness depends on ourselves’, but it seems as though not everybody has an equally-fair shot at contentment. Researchers at the University of Warwick have been studying happiness and the factors that influence it for decades, and their most recent revelation is that wellbeing could, to some extent, be genetic.
Dr Eugenio Proto and Professor Andrew Oswald were keen to discover why Denmark so frequently tops the world happiness rankings. They looked at data from 131 countries, and discovered that the closer a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the higher the reported wellbeing of that nation. The key to the results, they theorised, could be a mutation of the gene that influences the uptake of serotonin, which is linked to human mood.
“We looked at existing research which suggested that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated,” says Dr Proto.
“The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in the study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.”
Another factor beyond your control that could be determining your happiness levels is age. A number of studies have shown that we tend to feel happier as we get older, with a recent telephone survey identifying the most contented age as 85.
Cultivating a connection with the natural world can also make us happier. In recent years, a host of scientific studies have linked spending time in the great outdoors with a heightened sense of wellbeing. Just 20 minutes a day spent outside could be enough to lift your spirits.
“Nature is fuel for the soul,” says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “When we feel depleted, we often reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energised is to connect with nature. Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments.”
Exercise is yet another activity that has been proven time and again by researchers to boost happiness levels.
The equation for happiness may not be quite as straightforward as UCL researchers would have us believe, but there’s no doubt that science can provide some useful pointers for increasing personal wellbeing.