The New Science of Happiness

What makes the human heart sing? Researchers are taking a close look. What they've found may surprise you

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Jonathan Saunders for TIME

University of Illinois professor Edward Diener has been sizing up life satisfaction for 25 years. His wife and a son, both psychologists, are occasional collaborators

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There are numerous ways to do that, they argue. At the University of California at Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky is using grant money from the National Institutes of Health to study different kinds of happiness boosters. One is the gratitude journal — a diary in which subjects write down things for which they are thankful. She has found that taking the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects' overall satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that did not keep journals had no such gain.

Gratitude exercises can do more than lift one's mood. At the University of California at Davis, psychologist Robert Emmons found they improve physical health, raise energy levels and, for patients with neuromuscular disease, relieve pain and fatigue. "The ones who benefited most tended to elaborate more and have a wider span of things they're grateful for," he notes.

Another happiness booster, say positive psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness — visiting a nursing home, helping a friend's child with homework, mowing a neighbor's lawn, writing a letter to a grandparent. Doing five kind acts a week, especially all in a single day, gave a measurable boost to Lyubomirsky's subjects.

Seligman has tested similar interventions in controlled trials at Penn and in huge experiments conducted over the Internet. The single most effective way to turbocharge your joy, he says, is to make a "gratitude visit." That means writing a testimonial thanking a teacher, pastor or grandparent — anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude — and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. "The remarkable thing," says Seligman, "is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later. But it's gone by three months." Less powerful but more lasting, he says, is an exercise he calls three blessings — taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. "People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later."

Seligman's biggest recommendation for lasting happiness is to figure out (courtesy of his website, reflectivehappiness.com) your strengths and find new ways to deploy them. Increasingly, his work, done in collaboration with Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan, has focused on defining such human strengths and virtues as generosity, humor, gratitude and zest and studying how they relate to happiness. "As a professor, I don't like this," Seligman says, "but the cerebral virtues — curiosity, love of learning — are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love."

Why do exercising gratitude, kindness and other virtues provide a lift? "Giving makes you feel good about yourself," says Peterson. "When you're volunteering, you're distracting yourself from your own existence, and that's beneficial. More fuzzily, giving puts meaning into your life. You have a sense of purpose because you matter to someone else." Virtually all the happiness exercises being tested by positive psychologists, he says, make people feel more connected to others.

That seems to be the most fundamental finding from the science of happiness. "Almost every person feels happier when they're with other people," observes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "It's paradoxical because many of us think we can hardly wait to get home and be alone with nothing to do, but that's a worst-case scenario. If you're alone with nothing to do, the quality of your experience really plummets."

But can a loner really become more gregarious through acts-of-kindness exercises? Can a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist learn to see the glass as half full? Can gratitude journals work their magic over the long haul? And how many of us could keep filling them with fresh thankful thoughts year after year? Sonja Lyubomirsky believes it's all possible: "I'll quote Oprah here, which I don't normally do. She was asked how she runs five miles a day, and she said, 'I recommit to it every day of my life.' I think happiness is like that. Every day you have to renew your commitment. Hopefully, some of the strategies will become habitual over time and not a huge effort."

But other psychologists are more skeptical. Some simply doubt that personality is that flexible or that individuals can or should change their habitual coping styles. "If you're a pessimist who really thinks through in detail what might go wrong, that's a strategy that's likely to work very well for you," says Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. "In fact, you may be messed up if you try to substitute a positive attitude." She is worried that the messages of positive psychology reinforce "a lot of American biases" about how individual initiative and a positive attitude can solve complex problems.

Who's right? This is an experiment we can all do for ourselves. There's little risk in trying some extra gratitude and kindness, and the results — should they materialize — are their own reward.

With reporting by Elizabeth Coady / Champaign-Urbana; Dan Cray / San Francisco; Alice Park / New York; and Jeffrey Ressner / Los Angeles

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