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Finding Happiness

Scientists Think They Know What Makes Us Truly Happy

So what’s the secret?


— Sally Gall/Gallery Stock

Happiness genes

Dannay’s daughter, Dale Koppel, 67, says she shares her mother’s cheerful attitude toward life, even when life threw her a curve ball. She and her husband of 25 years divorced when he realized he wanted a male partner. Within days, she signed up for an online dating service. Three years and hundreds of dates later, she has not only remarried but also authored The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Online Dating: And She Lived Happily Ever After. “Even on the worst dates I’d find something positive that happened,” she says. Then she’d regale her friends with the story.

According to genetics research, it’s no coincidence that Dannay and Koppel have a similar disposition. Studies suggest your genes may account for about 50 percent of your natural happiness level. In particular, they likely affect how quickly people’s sense of well-being returns to its normal level after a bad experience, and the extent to which “normal” changes permanently, Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh reported with his colleagues in Psychological Science in 2008. Psychologists are quick to point out, however, that only part of a person’s happiness is predetermined; people can, in fact, boost their happiness with some effort.

Want success? It helps to be happy

Whichever way you look at it, it pays to be reasonably happy, researchers report. In fact, happiness often leads to success. In a review of 225 studies, “study after study shows that happiness precedes fulfilling and productive work, satisfying relationships, and superior mental and physical health and longevity,” reported Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, in Psychological Bulletin in 2005. Why is that? Feeling happy generally goes along with feeling confident, optimistic and energetic, all great traits for finding success.

America’s mission statement

Countries such as Canada, Germany, Bhutan and France are taking a strong interest in their citizens’ happiness, measuring their life satisfaction and emotional well-being and, in some cases, incorporating those findings in their government policies. If you want to know how happy your fellow U.S. residents are, check out this poll, a graphic mood ring of the nation’s well-being.

Even economists are paying attention to this link between happiness and success. In fact, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech called “The Economics of Happiness” at the University of South Carolina commencement ceremony in May and pointed out that even “economists have gotten into the act” of assessing people’s happiness. And, he suggested, it’s about time.

Happiness “is right there in the mission statement of the United States,” he said. After all, this country was founded on the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Tina Adler is a freelance writer who covers health, science and the environment.

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