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Is It Possible To Become Happier? Here's The Science.

Shannon Harvey

I was recently invited to MC the world’s largest conference on happiness. It’s an extraordinary event that features pioneers who are dedicated to finding science-backed answers on how we can live happier and healthier lives. It also features ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell. So it’s little wonder that on the first day I found myself smiling from ear to ear, feeling palpable grief, and meeting new people – all before 10am. By lunchtime, I’d laughed out loud, I’d shed a tear and I’d hugged a complete stranger, who I then ended up having lunch with. Amazing things always happen at the annual Happiness and Its Causes Conference and I’m still buzzing after this year’s event.

As I chatted with fellow conference goers, I learned that we'd all traveled from far and wide to be there. Some had come for their work, others used it as an excuse to catch up with friends they’d known since high-school, but despite the fact that we had come from the far corners of the world and from all walks of life, it occurred to me that we were all united by a common mission – to find more happiness.

We’ve all got good reasons seek the happiness holy grail, or “subjective wellbeing” as the social scientists like to say. Aside from the fact that it feels good, extensive research has linked positive emotions such as joy, love, hope, wonder, and awe to good health. For example, a study that followed more than 6000 university students for more than 40 years found that pessimistic students tended to die younger than their optimistic peers and a 2011 review of more than 160 studies found that having higher levels of positive emotions may add 4–10 years to your life.

But is happiness something that can be boosted? Or are we all chasing proverbial rainbows? To answer these questions, as always, I turned to the science.

You’ve probably heard that people who win the lottery ultimately end up no happier than they were before their good fortune. It’s a well-known anecdote based on a study done in 1978, and it’s often used to demonstrate that the emotional disposition you’re born with cannot be changed. The argument is, despite the highs and lows you may experience in life, you have a wellbeing baseline to which you inevitably return. Indeed, a growing body of more recent research using identical and fraternal twins suggests that how happy you’ll be is likely to be 35 to 50 percent due to your genetic make-up.

So regardless of the peaks and valleys you cross in the course of your life, it seems your genes are likely to be largely responsible for your emotional wellbeing. But before you fall into a pit of misery and bemoan the money you’ve spent on happiness best-sellers, ask yourself this: if 50 percent of our emotional life is governed by genetics, what governs the rest? And if even some of our emotional disposition is within our power to change, what is the best way to go about it?

Fortunately, this is a question that happiness researcher Ken Sheldon wanted answered. I thoroughly enjoyed a series of email exchanges with Sheldon, who is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Missouri, because although he’s a world-leading happiness scientist, he confesses to not buying in to the whole smiley-emoji, cute-puppies, think-happy-thoughts side of the self-help movement. He casts a very skeptical eye over the research and is more than willing to discuss what the science doesn’t show, which is my surefire way of sorting the quacks from the real deal.

The good news is that he has demonstrated it is possible to become happier but it comes with a caveat. In a 2012 study, he and his colleague Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, found that when people made a positive life change, such as getting a new job or starting a new relationship, they were able to maintain a happiness uplift provided they made an effort to cultivate it. They concluded that increased happiness “is an attainable goal, realizable when people make efforts to be grateful for what they have and to continue to interact with it in diverse, surprising, and creative ways.” In other words, Sheldon explained, it is possible to become happier, “but it takes effort and awareness.”

So far, things such as deliberately practicing gratitude, savouring positive experiences, and being kind are proving to be promising ways to become happier. A 2009 analysis that combined results from 51 randomised controlled interventions found that people who were prompted to engage in positive intentional activities, such as thinking gratefully, optimistically, or mindfully were able to become significantly happier and a 2013 follow-up analysis also found that positive psychology interventions can be effective.

It’s important to remember that, because each of us is unique, we don’t all need positive psychology interventions and not all positive psychology interventions will work for everyone. “I’m not big on disciplined exercises,” Sheldon told me. “I guess I don’t believe in setting out to make myself happy, or buying books on happiness. Instead I set out to do something fun and interesting, which will lead to new discoveries and realisations.”

It’s also interesting that positive interventions have been shown to be less effective over time, probably because of our innate tendency to adapt. People who use positivity-boosting exercises may get used to them, just like lottery winners get used to being millionaires. To date, the evidence suggests that you have to want to make a change and fully engage in deliberate and ongoing action to make it happen.

As the Happiness and Its Causes conference wrapped up for another year, I chatted to people in the taxi cue outside and learned that we were all taking away different highlights. One woman spoke of her renewed determination to meditate every day, another was wondering how she'd go about about finding more meaning and purpose in her work, and man (who had been "dragged" along by his wife) was inspired to integrate wellbeing design into his architectural practice. They all had different ideas of happiness in mind, but as I listened, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that a two-day event would have a ripple effect that reached far beyond the enclosed wall of conference centre auditorium. It was then that I realised that although I've always thought of the pursuit of happiness to be a singularly selfish thing, the consequences of seeking it, go far beyond ourselves.

So with that in mind, if you'd like to get started on boosting your own happiness, I’ve summarised some of the key positivity techniques being tested by researchers and outlined how you can use them in your everyday life here.

For the good of us all, I hope you find what you're looking for.

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