As social creatures, creative individuals and supportive friends, we set the foundation for well being–with our families, friends and communities. Happiness, or well-being, contributes to a strong immune system at any time in our lives. And those who describe themselves as happy live longer and healthier lives.
Dr. Theodore Ganials from the Stein Institute at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that about half of our capacity for happiness is hereditary. It may be genetic or a childhood environment—this is somewhat unknown. About 10 percent is due to circumstances like poverty. About 40 percent is unexplained. And that’s the percent he has studied.
Of course we know that some countries like Denmark rate highly on the happiness scale while others, like Hongkong, rate poorly. This may be indicative of how much autonomy people in these two countries feel they have. Most citizens in each country have a similar happiness level but countries vary strikingly. In the United States we are about average, but in South Korea, there is a widespread feeling of unease and discontent–perhaps due to the pressures to excel from an early age.
Here is what we do know: happiness can be fleeting. Someone who wins the lottery reports a happiness factor for one year and then reverts back to a previous level prior to winning the lottery. Making money will keep us out of the poverty trap of misery but it doesn’t add to happiness overall.
People who are happy generally are part of a support network. They have positive family attachments and feel committed to interests and causes. As we age we often are able to accommodate stress better than younger people, who rate at the highest level of stress in any society. The ages of 60 to 75 often are the happiest years in the United States.
But here is the most important fact of all: happy people do not obsess about grievances, failed goals or injustices. They process the information and move on. Unhappy people dwell upon negative experiences and have a hard time letting go. Much of the current attempts to help people find a measure of happiness in their lives is to redirect their negative thoughts to positive thoughts.
Sometimes they are asked to make a list of what they feel grateful to have, or list positive things that happen during the day. They may write a letter of gratitude to someone who has befriended them or recount a time when they did something they are proud of. This is an attempt is to exchange the amount of time dwelling on negative thoughts to positive thoughts. Perhaps this is one way happiness can be learned.
The events people describe that make them happy are simple and have changed little throughout their lifetimes. Physical exercise, socializing with friends, relaxing, reading. The least enjoyable past-time? Watching TV. It appears that sometimes people watch TV as a method to escape anger or frustration. This way they do not have to interact with people.
How many people make up a supportive group or network? Dr. Fowler believes the optimum number is about five. In a close group, friends have a powerful influence. If you have a close friend who is obese, you have a 40 percent chance of becoming obese. They may influence happiness and sadness in what is called homophily, or love of life through clustering. Only close friends can influence us, not our neighbors or acquaintances and that explains why we often feel unsatisfied at a big party.
But if our close network is positive and supportive, it can provide a powerful influence and often serves as a bulwark during the death of a spouse or child, a divorce, a serious illness and other catastrophes. In the same way, people who are suffering or depressed or generally negative reinforce those negative emotions. In general, happiness is stable over time.
Dr. James Fowler and Dr. Theodore Ganials: The Stein Institute, University of California at San Diego, www.sira.ucsd.edu