How happiness makes your life better

HappinessMost of us would agree that people who are successful are usually happier. What may be surprising is that a large body of research shows that happiness comes before financial success, mental health, supportive relationships, coping skills, and physical health! The question for researchers is, “How does a positive emotion such as happiness link to so many positive outcomes?” Research published in the June issue of the journal Emotion tests the theory that happiness leads people to build up positive resources.

The “broaden and build” theory of positive emotion proposes that, while negative emotion leads us to narrow our focus to address a specific threat, positive feelings lead to new thoughts and ideas that are not critical to survival. These broad-ranging thoughts, feelings and actions combine over time and lead to an accumulation of positive resources. Michael Cohn and his colleagues provide this example in the article:

… idle curiosity can lead to expert knowledge, or affection and shared amusement can become a lifelong supportive relationship. Positive emotions forecast valued outcomes such as health, wealth, and longevity because they help build the resources to get there.

Cohn and his fellow researchers followed nearly 100 university students over the course of a month, assessing positive emotions, life satisfaction, and resilience. This last factor is an important one: resilience refers to the ability to adapt to changing situations, to “bounce back” from stressful life events. Resilience helps people to cope with stress; in the lab, the cardiovascular systems of resilient people recover more quickly from stressors. Consistent with the broaden and build theory, participants in Cohn’s study who were happier experienced more life satisfaction not only because they were enjoying themselves, but because they were developing resources. That is, their more frequent positive emotions led to an increase in resilience, which helped them to cope with stress and resulted in more life satisfaction! In fact, positive emotions and resilience formed a feedback loop, with resilience contributing to more positive feelings at the same time as positive feelings led to resilience. Even people who were experiencing mild depressive symptoms benefited from positive emotions.

So, feeling happy might have long-term, potentially life-changing benefits, if the broaden and build theory holds up over time. The next step is to figure out how to get happy! We’ve posted a couple of hints from recent research. Last week, Dr. G wrote about some evidence that spending money on experiences (a vacation, for example) can make people feel happier. In December 2008, I found a 25-year study indicating that happiness is contagious – people who spend time with happy people are also happier themselves.

I’m off to find some happy friends and go on a holiday!

You can read more about Cohn’s study here.

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